What will MJ Melendez be as a Royal (if a Royal at all)?

Last year, three highly-rated position prospects in the Royals system had down seasons with the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks of the Carolina League: Outfielder Seuly Matias, First Baseman Nick Pratto, and Catcher MJ Melendez. Their lackluster performances were a bit disappointing for Royals fans looking for hope down in the lower levels of the minors, especially after back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons at the Major League level. And to make matters worse, the COVID pandemic could only have a bigger effect on these once-top prospects, especially since it will not only affect the Major League season, but could also result in the eradication of a Minor League campaign as well (I talked about this with Matias and Pratto in a previous post).

That being said, while Melendez did struggle like Matias and Pratto in High-A a year ago, and in similar fashion too at the plate (i.e. a lot of strikeouts), the 21-year-old catcher’s stock didn’t drop as dramatically as the other two this off-season. Melendez still seems to be seen as a Top-10 prospect in the Royals despite his “warts” as a prospect, which is not the case for Matias and Pratto. This was further confirmed with Melendez being invited to Major League camp in Surprise, unlike the other two. And even though Melendez struggled at the plate (.143/.188/.429 with .616 OPS in 16 plate appearances), it was nice that Melendez got much needed experience and exposure at the Big League level, especially with a new manager in charge in Kansas City who cut his teeth as a player behind the dish.

While it is unlikely that Melendez will be behind the plate in Kansas City either this year or next (most prospect experts predict that 2022 would be the earliest season he would make his debut, though that could get pushed back a year if the Minor League season gets canned), it still seems like he has the most upside of any catching prospect in the Royals system. But, while he has the most upside, he also is potentially blocked long term by Salvador Perez, who still seems more than serviceable behind the plate, and could be due for an extension after his contract expires in 2021, especially since he is not even 30 yet. And thus, does Salvy’s presence make Melendez trade-able, and unlikely to be a Royal in the future?

Let’s take a look at what Melendez offers this Royals organization, and the challenges of him breaking in behind the plate in Kansas City in the foreseeable future.

Melendez, plain and simple, was not good at the plate with the Blue Rocks in 2019. Over 110 games and 419 plate appearances, the Florida prep prospect posted a .163/.260/.311 slash with a .571 OPS and a strikeout rate of 39.4 percent. While he did walk over 10 percent of the time, he still posted a 0.27 BB/K ratio, the second season in a row that his ratio dropped (it fell from 0.43 in Arizona Rookie ball in 2017 to 0.30 in Single-A Lexington in 2018). And lastly, he only hit 9 home runs last year, 10 fewer than the previous season. Considering Melendez’s power stroke was one of his higher rated tools by scouts, the lack of home run production in Wilmington was disappointing (though to be fair, Wilmington and the Carolina League are known for suppressing home runs).

While offensively there was a lot to dwell about in 2019, Melendez still showed development and effectiveness behind the plate in 2019. His success rate when it came to gunning down runners was 60 percent in 2019, an 18 percent improvement from his 2018 in Lexington. Furthermore, he only made 6 errors and had a fielding percentage of .991, both improvements from 2018 (those numbers were 6 and .981, respectively with the Legends). Thus, while the reports didn’t paint Melendez in a complimentary fashion offensively, scouts and prospect experts still raved about Melendez’s defense, as evidenced in Fangraphs’ write up from Eric Longenhagen, who rated Melendez the 10th best prospect in the Royals system:

Everything else that scouts loved about him as an amateur is still extant. He has plus raw power, great long-term body projection, a plus arm, and projects to have a 55 glove, which is beneath the 60 or 70 grades he was garnering in high school but is still a relevant positive. We’re now looking at a likely backup catcher based on how scary the contact issues are, but if the swing issues are fixed, Melendez could really break out because the physical tools that the swing compromises are rare for the position.

Top 43 Prospects: Kansas City Royals; No. 10: MJ Melendez, “Fangraphs”, Eric Longenhagen

Even prospect gurus with the Royals fanbase seem optimistic about Melendez’s defense and potential behind the plate. Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report rated Melendez as the Royals’ 9th best prospect going into 2020, who cited his defense and his work ethic this off-season as promising signs that Melendez could see improvement this season (as long as Minor League Baseball is played). Here is what Duvall said in his report:

Hopefully his change in approach this past offseason will pay dividends for the Royals talented young backstop, as the Royals need him to produce at the level that he’s capable. An offensive renaissance by Melendez in 2020 would do wonders for the totality of the Royals farm system. Melendez has an argument for the title as best defender among all Royals prospects, and he’s easily a top 100 prospect if he can show some offensive consistency. That is obviously easier said than done, but Melendez has shown a magnificent work ethic during his pro career and I’m excited to see how all of this hard work pays off for him in 2020.

No. 9: MJ Melendez; “Royals Farm Report”; Alex Duvall

And if these reports are not convincing, you can watch the highlights and see why Melendez impresses not just scouts and Royals management and coaches, but Royals fans as well. He isn’t a stout body behind the plate like a Salvy or even Meibrys Viloria, who both would struggle elsewhere in the field. Melendez is long, lanky and smooth, traits that are not typical for catching prospects. Melendez could easily be an outfielder or corner infielder, and yet, he is not only behind the dish, but showing a glove that is getting better by the year. And his stroke? Yeah, he strikes out a lot, but it’s a nice-looking swing that could produce 15-20 home runs with some proper plate discipline.

Take a look at the highlight package below and see what I mean:

The potential is there. There’s not a lot of polish yet, and that is evidenced in these clips, especially at the plate. But Royals fans can see why the Royals are willing to be patient and will give Melendez every opportunity to become the catcher of the future once Salvy leaves.

If Salvy leaves Kansas City, of course, which is difficult to tell.

There is no question Salvy is the leader of the 2020 Royals and has been for some time, with the exception of last year, which he missed due to Tommy John surgery recovery. It’s likely that Salvy will have his number retired in Kansas City when he calls it quits, much like George Brett and Frank White before him (and most likely Alex Gordon as well, whether he retires after this year or next). And Salvy is paid to be the leader of this Royals team, as he is due to make around $28.4 million over the next two seasons, and will be eligible for free agency after the 2021 season.

And Salvy’s future in Kansas City when that contract expires is the dilemma general manager Dayton Moore faces.

As of now, the Royals are a rebuilding club. Yes, I know Matheny, Gordo, and Whit were saying differently at FanFest, and Strat-O-Matic really likes the Royals during their early simulations of the season (they have them leading the AL Central with a 14-5 record…it’s like 2003 all over again baby). But at the end of the day, this Royals team is probably winning 60-70 games over the course of a full 162 game slate, which translates into a winning percentage of .370 to .430. The Royals are more focused on what this club will be in 2022, when they should be able to compete with all the highly-touted arms up. Thus, Moore has to figure out which current players should be part of that 2022 roster, and those who should not.

On one end, it makes sense to extend Salvy into 2022 and beyond. He’ll only be around 32, and the lost season of 2019 may have saved his legs and his body for more seasons behind the plate. While his arm is questionable after Tommy John, he seems to be a dependable power bat who will hit in between 20 and 30 home runs on an annual basis, even if it may result in a lot of strikeouts and not a lot of walks (he has a career BB/K ratio of 0.22). And lastly, Salvy is a fan favorite and the “Captain” of the clubhouse. That kind of leadership will be needed, especially with Gordon most likely retiring before the 2022 season.

However, Moore and the Royals Player Development team have done a lot the past couple of seasons in terms of revamping their approach when it comes to hitting, especially in the Minor Leagues. In an Athletic story by Alec Lewis, the Royals are really putting a lot of time and money into some new tracking and data systems that should help players and coaches improve hitting in the minors, much needed after so many top prospects failed at the plate in the lower levels in 2019. And one of the main targets of this new Royals PD approach is Melendez, who seems to have embraced this new system, as well as the coaching from those involved with Royals Player Development. Here is what Lewis mentioned in the article:

The camp, which Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo spearheaded, served a couple of purposes. It allowed the Royals to introduce their new hitting development structure, featuring director of hitting performance Alec Zumwalt, hitting coordinator Drew Saylor and assistant coordinator Keoni De Renne. The camp also allowed hitters to assess what they needed to work on. Melendez flew out for the camp. The coaches impressed him in the first few days with how they asked questions. They did not have a set model for how a hitter should swing because hitters come in all shapes and sizes. They tailored the work to the player…That’s the way the Royals’ hitting development group would like it. Zumwalt, Saylor, De Renne, Tosar, Grifol, big-league hitting coach Terry Bradshaw and assistant coach John Mabry want to streamline communication and pool their knowledge to put together the best plan for players…Melendez served as a great example.

‘It’s night and day’: Trust and belief helping transform MJ Melendez’s hitting, “The Athletic”; Alec Lewis

Moore preaches that the club’s intention is to compete. That being said, Moore also knows that the blueprint for the Royals to compete is not through free agency, and that seems to be evident, as the Royals’ $80 million payroll (expected to be around $88 million) is one of the lowest in the league. In order for the Royals to compete, they need their prospects to bloom thanks to the work player development has done in the minors. They need to show initiatives like this new hitting system they’ve installed will show fruit at the Major League level. And those results will need to start being realized by at least 2022 for Moore to justify that he knows what he’s doing when it comes to making the Royals a winning ballclub again.

Consequently, it feels like Melendez needs to be the posterboy of not just that development initiative, but the Royals youth movement in terms of position players. They need him to hit and be the stellar defender he’s been behind the plate in the minors thus far. And he needs to do it full time, not behind Salvy or anyone else.

It will be interesting to see if Moore will put that kind of belief in Melendez in 2022 or 2023. As of now, Salvy most likely will be (and probably should) be the Royals’ catcher for at least the next 5-6 seasons. But if Minor League baseball resume in 2020, and Melendez shows some improvement and production at the plate?

Well…let’s just say 2022 and/or 2023 will be quite interesting when it comes to who will be the starting catcher in Kansas City.

Because if Melendez is traded to another team and succeeds (and Salvy declines sharply both offensively and defensively), or if the Royals allow Salvy to walk and Melendez flops as a Royal, then…well…

Let’s just say that the Royals most likely will be looking for a new general manager by 2025.

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