SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When six-time All-Star catcher and 2015 World Series MVP Award winner Salvador Perez underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Wednesday, it signaled tough times for the Royals. It will be a challenge to fill Perez’s shoes behind the plate -- where he’s a five-time Gold
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When six-time All-Star catcher and 2015 World Series MVP Award winner Salvador Perez underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow Wednesday, it signaled tough times for the Royals. It will be a challenge to fill Perez’s shoes behind the plate -- where he’s a five-time Gold Glove winner -- and his two-time Silver Slugger bat, but his leadership on the club may be one of the biggest challenges for others to fill.
When it comes to the catching duties, manager Ned Yost is ready to turn to a tough player for a tough job, weighing just-turned 22-year-old Meibrys Viloria for the role of backup catcher. Cam Gallagher was expected to step into the starting role while Perez begins a year-long recovery from the surgery, but the Royals also reached a deal with free-agent catcher Martín Maldonado on Saturday, according to a source, to further increase their depth and competition.
“He’s a tough kid, and he’s not afraid of anything,” Yost said of Viloria, Kansas City's No. 19-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline. “He’s fearless. He’s smart. He’s got great personality. But he’s a tough kid.”
Viloria showed his mettle when he made the leap from Class A Advanced Wilmington all the way to the big leagues last September, earning a call-up and giving the Royals plenty of reasons for optimism. He hit .259 in his 10-game stint, going 7-for-27 with a pair of doubles and four RBIs. Perhaps most impressive was his performance behind the plate, where he guided Kansas City's starting pitchers to a 1.84 ERA over seven starts and 44 innings.
“We had plenty of chances to look at him in September,” Yost said. “He’s a kid that can catch, he can throw. He swings the bat. He’s fearless. He’s not awed by the big leagues, but he continues to work really, really hard.”
For his part, Viloria’s whirlwind promotion and ascension from a young prospect in the low Minors to a likely spot on the Opening Day roster six months later had him scrambling at times to keep his bearings.
“I was surprised -- I was playing High A and then went to the big leagues,” Viloria said before Friday’s game against the Reds, recalling his Major League debut last September. “[I remember] a lot of people watching the game. The first inning I was a little bit scared, but after that I played my game. I got my first hit, so it was amazing.”
Growing up in Cartagena, Colombia, Viloria had relatively few players from his country to look to for inspiration, but he emulated Yadier Molina’s approach to playing the game hard, and he has learned volumes from Perez. Viloria is just the 21st Colombian-born player in the Major Leagues, and the first to ever play for the Royals.
“My city, they don’t like baseball a lot,” Viloria said. “The people like soccer. But here [in the United States], a lot of people like baseball.”
It took him nearly a week to get comfortable in his new setting last September, and though his family didn’t believe him when he told them he was going to the big leagues, his new teammates and manager thought he looked right at home.
Viloria spent five years adapting to professional baseball in the United States, collecting stacks of accolades as he went. He was the 2014 Dominican Royals Player of the Year, the 2016 Pioneer League Most Valuable Player, and a 2018 Arizona Fall League “Rising Star.”
“I can play in the big leagues,” he said, convinced that the work ethic that got him this far will help him continue to excel. “I came [to Spring Training] to work hard. I’m going to play hard, like how I play. If you give me the opportunity, I’m going to play.”
While he toils in the batting cage every morning to improve his performance at the plate, he’s most focused on his defensive skills -- and most proud of his ability to quickly get up to big league speed when it comes to handling a pitching staff, taking the confidence he developed last September and channeling it into improved performance in the Cactus League.
“I just play my game,” Viloria summed up. “Enjoy the game. Be happy, no matter what happens. If you make an error, make an adjustment.”
“Is he going to have areas that he’s going to need to continually improve in?” Yost asked rhetorically about Viloria. “Yes, but we’re very confident that he can handle it.”