When the Royals made Bobby Witt, Jr. the Opening Day third baseman, it signified that the Royals were not only intent on winning, but playing their young players as soon as they were deemed ready, regardless of service time.
Dayton Moore, JJ Picollo, and the Royals front office could have easily manipulated Witt’s service time to preserve another year before he would become a free agent. However, as Royals fans learned with Brady Singer and Kris Bubic back in 2020, the Royals will take a long-term risk (i.e. less team control time) in favor of improving the team immediately, as long as there isn’t anyone blocking one at a particular position.
While the Royals are 14-24 entering Saturday’s game against the first-place Minnesota Twins, there seems to be a youth movement matriculating from Omaha to Kansas City, beyond Witt, even if it may be coming slow and more due to “forced” measures (i.e. injuries).
The season-ending ACL injury to Adalberto Mondesi brought up Emmanuel Rivera, who has solidified himself as a platoon player at third base, and maybe more, depending on how his bat continues to play out this season. MJ Melendez has filled in nicely behind the plate for an injured Salvador Perez. And just last night, centerfield prospect Dairon Blanco made his MLB debut with Michael A. Taylor on the shelf due to COVID protocol.
Granted, the Royals are not quite totally in that “play all the kids” movement just yet.
Whit Merrifield is still at the top of the order and rotating in right field and second base, though he has suddenly been turning it around at the plate after a slow start to the 2022 season. Additionally, a sharply declining Carlos Santana continues to get at-bats in the middle of the order, even though he did hit his second home run this year on Friday night at Kauffman Stadium.
That being said, the success of Rivera and Melendez shows the potential that this Royals team could have this season (and maybe beyond) when Mike Matheny employs the young Royals hitters into the lineup.
In this post, I dive a little deeper into Rivera and Melendez’s success so far this season, and if there could be some further moves from Omaha on the horizon.
Rivera Making the Most of Opportunities
Unlike Witt or Melendez, Rivera has never really been a “top” prospect in the Royals system.
According to Baseball America, the highest Rivera has ever ranked in the Royals system was 22nd, which came prior to the 2019 season. This past season, he was ranked as the 30th best prospect in the Royals system, and BA’s scouting report said this about him:
Always known as a steady hitter and defender at third base, Rivera long lacked the desired power for the position. He tapped into hits more consistently in 2021, though, showing simple mechanics at the plate. Rivera creates a long path through the strike zone and drives the ball to all fields while showing movement patterns that are simple and repeatable. Rivera is an average defender at third base with good range and solid hands. He has a plus throwing arm with solid zip and carry. While he’s a below-average runner, Rivera is a smart baserunner and can take an extra base in the right situation.“Emmanuel Rivera Scouting Report-2022”; Baseball America
Rivera didn’t make the Royals’ Opening Day roster, as the Royals opted for Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares to be bats/options off the bench. However, an injury to Olivares, as well as Mondesi, the Royals’ Opening Day shortstop, not only forced the Royals to move Rivera up from Omaha but give him limited opportunities as well.
In his rookie season, Rivera didn’t necessarily “wow” Royals fans and management, but he didn’t necessarily disappoint either.
Over 29 games and 98 plate appearances, he posted a slash of .256/.316/.333 which included a .649 OPS, a home run, and five RBI. As evidenced by his slugging and OPS, the power didn’t quite transition to the Major League level in 2021, but he still held his own at the plate when it came to making contact.
It’s been a different story for Rivera though in 2022.
The batting average is around the same at .256, and his OBP is actually down at .304. On the other hand, the power has dramatically spiked over his first 46 plate appearances this year. He is posting a .535 slugging and has hit two triples and two home runs, including this one in the bottom of the ninth off of Twins closer Emilio Pagan.
Rivera has always been a good line-drive hitter, as he posted a 29 percent line-drive rate a season ago. This year he’s been even better, as he is not only posting a 35.3 percent line-drive rate, but also an 8.8 percent barrel rate, a 7.4 percent improvement from a season ago.
Based on his expected wOBA trendline stemming from his rookie season, the Puerto-Rican-born corner infielder has really adjusted after his first 100 plate appearances at the Major League level. Therefore, it is possible that Rivera could not just sustain his offensive output thus far this year, but perhaps even produce more, especially in the batting average category.
On an offensive end, there is no question that Rivera can be a serviceable MLB corner infielder, and maybe an everyday one, especially if the hits start to fall more consistently (his xBA is .322, which shows that he has been hurt by some batted-ball luck this year).
Unfortunately, his defense is a bit more questionable, which can be evidenced in his OAA metrics in the table below:
Over his career, Rivera has been five outs BELOW average at third-base, and his success rate percentages don’t exactly bode a promising picture as well.
The Royals value defense, especially in the infield, and they struggled a year ago with Hunter Dozier, who offensively can handle the position, but was such a liability defensively at the hot corner.
I do not think Rivera is as bad as Dozier defensively. However, if Rivera wants to earn more playing time at third base in 2022 and beyond, he will not just need to continue his strong hitting, but he has to show some progress defensively, especially with Witt being so skilled at the third-base position.
Can Melendez Take Catching Innings Away from Salvy?
Salvy is on the shelf, as is Cam Gallagher, who was on the IL before Salvy’s injury. Thus, the Royals are pretty much relying on Melendez and Sebastian Rivero, who was catching in Double-A prior to his most recent call-up.
Therefore, it makes sense why Melendez is getting a majority of innings behind the plate and at-bats as the Royals’ primary catcher, especially since Rivero doesn’t offer much, if any, upside offensively.
What will be interesting though is what the Royals will do when Salvy comes back off the IL.
Because right now, Melendez is forcing the issue that he deserves to be in the lineup and perhaps behind the plate on a regular basis for the remainder of the 2022 season. The Salvy-Melendez switching between Catcher and DH platoon, which seemed to be more of an idea for 2023, could be realistic as soon as Salvy returns.
On an offensive end, the data backs up such a platoon between Melendez and Salvy.
Melendez is producing a slash of .286/.348/500 with two home runs and four RBI in 46 plate appearances. He is striking out a lot at 26.1 percent, but he is producing a walk rate of 8.7 percent, which shows that he is at least trying to be patient at the plate.
In addition, the batted ball metrics for Melendez have been promising.
His 94.6 average exit velocity on batted balls ranks him in the 77th percentile, according to Savant, and his 10 percent barrel rate is the third-best mark for Royals hitters with 10 or more plate appearances this year. Melendez also demonstrates a good all-fields batted-ball approach, which can be seen in his spray chart from all games he has played in through May 21st:
Granted, Melendez has seen some batted-ball luck, unlike Rivera.
His xBA is .261, which is 25 points lower than his actual batting average this year. Therefore, it’s not out of the question to think that Melendez may hover in the .240-.250 range when the BABIP corrects itself (it’s currently at .357). Even then, considering Melendez is a catcher, the Royals will take that, especially if he can continue to produce solid contact when he does so.
The big concern though is the defensive adjustment for Melendez. He has looked better with his throwing skills lately but he still showcases some serious framing problems.
Here’s a look at how Royals catchers have rated this year on a framing end, according to Savant. Unfortunately, the metrics haven’t been promising for Melendez thus far.
Melendez has always rated as a strong defensive catcher from his time in the Minors. That being said, framing is a challenging art that doesn’t always come easily, even for catchers with highly-rated defensive tools. Salvy has struggled with it throughout his career, and it seems like Melendez is going through his own growing pains when it comes to framing at the Major League level as well.
The Royals’ second-best prospect deserves to be playing as much as possible at the Major League level this season. But, when Gallagher is eligible to come back, Matheny and the Royals will be put in a tough spot, especially since Gallagher offers a framing strength that better complements Salvy than Melendez.
Who Else Could Be Coming Up?
Not surprisingly, the two candidates being mentioned the most as deserving of a call-up are Vinnie Pasquantino, and Nick Pratto, both first base prospects in Omaha.
Pasquantino has the better approach of the two, as he is only posting a 14.1 percent K rate to go along with a 14.1 walk rate. His slash is .269/.380/.567 over 163 plate appearances, and he is doing this despite having a .257 BABIP.
What’s been a promising development this season in Omaha has been Pasquantino’s power, as he has hit nine home runs this year, including this one below:
Royals fans have been advocating for Pasquantino’s call-up so fervently that there actually is a Twitter account dedicated to whether or not he has been called up this season.
While Pasquantino is the more “popular” Royals first base prospect to be called up, Pratto has shown lately that he is starting to demonstrate that he is ready for his own call up to Kansas City, which would be easier for the Royals, especially since he is already on the 40-man roster.
Pratto’s batting average isn’t great at .230, and his K rate of 31.4 percent in 137 plate appearances also should give some Royals fans caution. On the other hand, he is producing a walk rate of 14.6 percent, and the power has matured as he has hit seven home runs and is producing a .239 ISO.
While Pratto probably will struggle to hit for average in his initial stint in the bigs, he could make up for it with walks and power, which is what is needed at the first-base position.
He is also coming off of a multi-home run game on May 19th, which shows that Pratto is surging at just the right time after a slow start to the season at the plate.
What makes Pratto a bit more intriguing as a possible call-up than Pasquantino is also Pratto’s defensive versatility.
Pratto is not just a stellar defensive option at first base (he won a Minor League Gold Glove last year), but he has also shown that he can play in the corner outfield spots as well. The same cannot be said for Pasquantino, who rates as an average if not below, defensive first baseman.
Those defensive limitations challenge Matheny and the Royals when it comes to finding a place to plug in Pasquantino, especially with Dozier being a 1B/DH type and if they are intent on keeping Santana on the roster for a little bit longer. The Royals would have to make a move with Santana and get creative with Dozier and maybe Melendez if they want to bring up Pasquantino. With the Royals’ financial commitments to Santana, it seems like the Royals aren’t ready to make a major move on Santana just yet.
As for Pratto, they could have him get innings in right or left field, which it seems like Matheny would be open to doing, especially considering who he has thrown out in those positions this year (i.e. Dozier).
That’s why Pratto may make his Royals debut sooner than Pasquantino…
And I have a feeling that call-up is coming sooner than Royals fans may think.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports