CLEVELAND — Roberto Perez has been waiting for quite some time to be able to show what he can accomplish when he gets regular playing time.
He now has his chance.
Perez was playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic when news broke that the Indians had traded All-Star catcher Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals. Perez didn’t have great cellphone service at the time, so he at first wasn’t even able to hear news of the deal that also meant his playing time opportunities behind the plate had grown exponentially.
Perez had been in a timeshare with Gomes for the past five seasons, with the latter operating as the primary option behind the plate. Perez has never logged more than 217 at-bats in a season or played in more than 73 games. He’s always received semi-regular time and has been viewed as an asset, but it also always came somewhat in Gomes’ shadow.
The Indians have since acquired catcher Kevin Plawecki, who, along with Eric Haase, adds to their depth of major-league options at catcher. But Perez still figures to garner the lion’s share of work. It’s the opportunity for which he’s been waiting since he broke into the big leagues in 2014.
“I’m excited, man. I’m going to prove some people wrong,” Perez said. “I’m ready for the opportunity, for the challenge, and whatever happens, whatever it takes, I’m there. I can’t wait to get going.”
Perez will be tasked with taking on more responsibility handling the pitching staff, which he’s done in spurts with Gomes injured and drawn rave reviews while doing so. There’s little doubt about his defense and pitch framing. It’s his hitting that leaves the most unanswered questions as to what Perez might bring in 2019. And, it was his hitting that led him to asking the team for permission to play winter ball in the first place.
“I went down there to work on my hitting and my at-bats,” Perez said. “It’s easier when you get the chance to play every day and show what you can do. That’s why I went down there. Not only to catch, because I think my defense is there, but to take great at-bats and feel myself.”
Perez was abysmal at the plate last season, hitting just .168 with a .519 OPS in 210 appearances. Among players with at least 200 plate appearances, Perez had the fourth-worst wRC+ (40) in baseball. And of those four, he had the highest strikeout percentage at 33.3 percent.
Perez’s hope is that the sheer playing time adjustment is the answer. It’s why he went to the Dominican Republic. It’s why he’s looking forward to a full spring of at-bats. There’s a rhythm to hitting that Perez believes he’s never really been able to attain while consistently sitting games with Gomes behind the plate.
“Baseball is hard; the hardest thing is to hit,” Perez said. “When you play every day, you get the opportunity to make adjustments. When you don’t play, you try to make your at-bats one swing, especially if you play once or twice a week. You try to do too much. You try to make up for games you didn’t get a hit, stuff like that.”
An increased level of production is needed. So far this offseason, the Indians have lost Gomes, Michael Brantley (signed with the Houston Astros as a free agent), Edwin Encarnacion (traded to the Seattle Mariners) and Yonder Alonso (traded to the Chicago White Sox) from their lineup, leaving question marks in the outfield and certainly creating a weaker bottom of the order on paper.
Perez won’t be asked to put up Gomes-like numbers. He won’t be asked to repeat his performance from Game 1 of the 2016 World Series — when he slugged two home runs in a win over the Chicago Cubs — every night. But the Indians have also long said they think there’s more production in his bat than he’s shown.
Perez has been waiting for the chance to show it with a larger sample size. That opportunity, barring something unforeseen, is here.
“I think I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for the last couple years,” Perez said. “Now that I have it, I’m going to get the most out of it.”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.