December 5, 2012 - Midwest League (MWL) - Dayton Dragons
Once in a blue moon, a player comes through Dayton with defensive skills that are so advanced that his fielding prowess alone prompts predictions of a future in the Major Leagues. You can practically quote the scouts at Fifth Third Field before they even speak.
"If he just hits a little, he'll make it."
"His defense alone will get him there. But if his bat catches up, he'll be a star."
"He can play defense in the Major Leagues today. He just needs to learn to hit."
Those are the common clichés used to describe these rare players who are truly fun to watch, not for how many runs they can drive in, but for how many they can prevent.
When discussing the best defensive player ever to play for the Dragons, the debate would include players like center fielder Drew Stubbs and shortstops Paul Janish, Ray Olmedo, and Zack Cozart among many others. Who was the best defensive catcher in Dragons history? Says one former Reds executive, "It's not even close." This is the story of the 17th former Dragon to reach the big leagues, catcher Miguel Perez.
Perez was signed by the Reds a few weeks after his 17th birthday in November of 2000. A native of Venezuela, Perez had good size for a catcher at 6'3", 190 lbs. He progressed slowly at first, beginning his career with the Reds affiliate in the Venezuelan Summer League, then to the Gulf Coast League in 2002. Immediately, he drew attention, rated as the #24 prospect in the Reds organization prior to the 2003 season despite having only 26 games of experience in the U.S. as an 18-year-old. Baseball America's Prospect Handbook referenced his "plus arm strength" and potential to "become a menacing presence behind the plate." Interestingly, the publication stated that Perez was slotted behind two other catchers in the Reds system, one of whom was Joey Votto. Now established as a superstar first baseman, it is hard to imagine that scouts once projected Votto as the Reds' future catcher.
In 2003, Perez played at Billings and hit .339 to go along with his great throwing skills. He played briefly that season in Dayton, appearing in 20 games with the Dragons.
In 2004, Perez returned to Dayton as the Dragons' 20-year-old starting catcher. While his batting average dropped to just .237 with an alarmingly low total of eight extra base hits in 278 plate appearances, the army of scouts that annually descend upon Fifth Third Field got an even better look at Perez's skills behind the plate. Marc Katz, who covered the Dragons for the Dayton Daily News, clearly remembers the reaction of the scouts.
Katz recalls, "the most common description of Perez was, 'if he could hit, he would be in the Major Leagues right now.' It was not something that was really hard to see. He could throw guys out, he could block balls in the dirt. He would pick runners off base. Everything he did defensively looked like a junior Johnny Bench. But you wondered where the power was. He was a big guy too, he just didn't hit for any power at all."
Perez moved on to Sarasota to start the 2005 season and what would turn out to be a spectacular six month climb from Single-A to the big leagues. A former Reds executive remembers that the number of pick-offs for Perez in Sarasota was "ridiculous," though no record of the exact number is available. Perez threw out 44 percent of opposing base stealers and despite a mid-season promotion that allowed him to catch only about half his team's games, he led the league in runners thrown out attempting to steal.
Perez did improve offensively during that 2005 campaign, batting .268 with four homers (three more than he hit the previous year), and on August 9, he was promoted from Single-A to Triple-A Louisville to finish out the Minor League season. Less than a week later, he was called up to Cincinnati.
In an article by Kelly Thesier of MLB.com, Perez expressed the feelings of a player who had spent most of the year in Single-A ball, only to finish in the Major Leagues.
"There was no way I thought this would happen this year," said Perez. "I spent almost all season in Florida. I came to Triple-A in the last month. I was supposed to be up there for 10 days, but for some reason, I stayed there for the rest of the season. Now I'm here. I'm just so happy and so excited."
Perez's rise to the Majors also carried an interesting side story. Hall-of-Fame writer Hal McCoy noted that Perez was a fine musician, having played the viola in the Venezuelan National Symphony. He also plays the violin, mandolin, and guitar.
Perez appeared in just two games for the Reds in 2005, going 0 for 3. Following the season, he was rated as the seventh best prospect in the entire Reds organization, rated higher than #9 Votto and behind #1 Homer Bailey, #2 Jay Bruce, #3 Travis Wood, and only three others.
In 2006, Perez, now 22, spent the year in Double-A with Chattanooga, batting .241 with three home runs and throwing out 41 percent of opposing base stealers. He again led the league in most runners thrown out attempting to steal. He seemed poised to move up to Triple-A as a full-time player in 2007 and perhaps garner more time with the Reds if the need arose.
But the first half of the 2007 season never got off the ground for Perez. He missed three months after having a rib removed to relieve pressure on an artery, and he played in just 42 games, mostly back in Sarasota. Following the season, the Reds removed him from their 40-man roster and he became a free agent, signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
Five years later, Perez is still playing in the Minor Leagues, though he has never returned to the Majors. He went to the Indians organization and then on to the Washington Nationals and has twice returned to the Pirates system. He briefly appeared with Triple-A Indianapolis in 2012, still only 28 years old. Over 11 seasons in the Minor Leagues, Perez has played in 608 games, posting a career batting average of .268 with 22 home runs. Perez was the most highly-regarded defensive catcher in the Reds system during the middle part of the decade and while fans of Tucker Barnhart could argue, is considered by many to be the Gold Glove backstop of the Dragons' 13-year history. He became the 17th Dragons player to reach the big leagues. Next up: Dustin Moseley.