Royals Rundown: Melendez offers potential glimpse of future behind the plate for KC

Todd Fertig
Special to The Capital-Journal
Kansas City Royals catching prospect MJ Melendez recently made the leap to Triple-A Omaha and may soon be vying for time behind the plate alongside iconic Royals catcher Salvador Perez.

The Kansas City Royals recently scored some points in the "feel good" category when they made a splashy announcement of the promotion of prospects Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto to Triple-A Omaha. 

With the big league club more than a dozen games below .500, the organization decided to grab some more good PR by making a big deal of another promotion, this time moving catching prospect MJ Melendez to Triple-A. 

Setting cynicism aside, you can’t blame the Royals for touting the movement of their top minor leaguers. After all, prospect watching is one of the favorite pastimes of fans of bad teams.  

A 22-year-old catcher who is the son of a college coach, Melendez was the Royals’ selection in the second round of the 2017 amateur draft. He was elevated to Omaha this week after thrashing pitching at Double-A Northwest Arkansas for three months. His 28 homers at the time of his promotion were among minor league leaders, and he was batting .285. 

Melendez’ promotion is interesting for a few reasons: 

First, he was nearly given up for dead two years ago at this time. Second, his promotion was slowed by a glut of catching prospects at the top of the Royals’ system. And third, his progress appears to be blocked by all-star Salvador Perez. 

A rare left-hand-hitting catcher, Melendez was expected to bring advanced hitting tools and some power to the Royals system. He did well enough at his first two stops in the low minors. But 2019 turned into a nightmare for Melendez. He batted just .163 with nine home runs at High-A Wilmington, plummeting off prospect ranking boards.  

Reporters covering Melendez’ promotion this week seemed most intrigued by his resurrection at the plate. Melendez credits spending the 2020 season at the Royals’ alternate training site, where he could revamp both his swing and his mental approach. 

“It’s been a long process, to say the least,” Melendez said about his improvement with the bat. “There’s been a lot of work that’s gone on behind the scenes to make the adjustments. At the alternate site, I was able to do that facing live pitching while not having the pressure of putting up stats. We were able to try little things to figure out what worked and what didn’t work.” 

Specifically, Melendez said he opened his stance to see the ball better. But more than anything, he wants to have a plan each at-bat and show better pitch selection.  

“I am working on having a specific approach against each pitcher and learning to lay off borderline pitches,” Melendez said. “I’m making the pitchers come to me and not chasing what they want me to chase after.” 

When the Royals promoted first baseman Pratto and infielder Witt a few weeks before Melendez, the organization admitted that the catcher was having every bit as much success as the other two. It was just that they had too many catchers at Triple-A already. They didn’t want to promote Melendez to Triple-A just to have him split time with the other prospects. 

Having too many good catchers is a problem any organization would love to have. But it does pose complications when it comes to developing them all. The Royals have on the Omaha Roster 28-year-old Nate Esposito, 27-year-old Nick Dini and 22-year-old Sebastian Rivero, in addition to Melendez. To make room for Melendez, they demoted solid prospect Meibrys Viloria, a 24-year-old who has held his own in spot duty in the big leagues. 

While Melendez got most of the publicity early on, it was Rivero who impressed out of the gate and was promoted ahead of Melendez. When Melendez went off the deep end in 2018, Rivero stepped in as the Royals' top catching prospect. He filled in a handful of games in Kansas City earlier this year. 

The logjam of catchers in the minors is partly the fault of Perez. The 31-year-old all star just keeps getting better. None of the prospects has a shot at supplanting him any time soon. 

Which begs the question, what should the Royals do about their abundance of catchers? 

Would they consider trading Perez?  

The answer is "no" under almost any circumstance. He’s not only a Kansas City icon and one of the few reminders left of those glorious runs to the World Series in 2014 and 2015. He’s also arguably the best catcher in the game right now with four years left on a team-friendly contract. 

Would the Royals consider trading Melendez? 

That’s a tough one. You could argue that the best time to trade a player is when he has the most value. Melendez’ stock has gone through the roof of late – he’s currently ranked among the top handful of catching prospects. He might reap a healthy return from a team in search of its next catcher. The Royals certainly have plenty of holes to fill. 

The organization once dealt a top minor-league prospect in outfielder Wil Myers when it felt it was just a couple of pitchers away from contention. As part of a package deal, Myers brought in return pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis, which turned the Royals into a playoff team. 

The problem, of course, with trading a top prospect is you never know just how good he will become. Should Melendez turn into a perennial all star, the Royals will likely regret trading him regardless of what they get in return. 

The most cautious path, which the Royals seem to indicate they will follow, would be to try to divide the catching duties between Perez and Melendez, while attempting to get each of them in the lineup in other ways when possible. Perez could slot into the designated hitter role more frequently, while the youthful and athletic Melendez could spend some time in the outfield. 

“I have to just continue to do what the organization needs me to do, whatever they need to see,” Melendez said. “I’m going to do the best I can at wherever I’m put, and just continue to work hard on my catching game.” 

Melendez said he can’t think about all the other catchers in the organization, or about when he might finally reach the major leagues.   

“I can’t go play GM,” Melendez said. “I have to just focus on doing things the right way, continue to work hard and keep my head down. If you’re doing what you can where you’re at, everything else will take care of itself.” 

While Melendez admires Perez, he isn’t afraid to say he looks forward to challenging him for the starting catcher spot someday. 

“I have a lot to learn from him. Hopefully I’ll be playing alongside him someday soon. The whole organization (embraces) friendly competition and if we get to do that, it’ll be good. I feel like we would make each other better.”