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The stage is set for MJ Melendez to make a quick rise to the big leagues

2019 is shaping up similarly to 2011, when another Royals catcher made his debut

Kansas City Royals catcher MJ Melendez (70) poses for a photo during media day at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale
Kansas City Royals catcher MJ Melendez (70) poses for a photo during media day at Surprise Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Salvador Perez debuted in August of 2011, and after eight seasons of watching the lovable Venezuelan we have retconned that event into being just another debut in a year filled with them. However, it was anything but that. Perez entered the season as a 20-year-old catcher whose greatest professional accomplishment to date was completing one single season at High-A Wilmington. Perez ended the year in the big leagues, the proud new owner of a multi-year and multi-million dollar extension.

The Royals organization loved Perez. Bob Dutton wrote about Perez in February of 2011 in an article that is a spot-on and unnerving description considering his big league career:

“He’s as good a thrower as I’ve ever seen — as I’ve ever seen! — behind the plate,” said manager Ned Yost, himself a former catcher.

...“He blocks the ball very well and has great energy behind the plate. He has a lot of leadership qualities. There’s a lot going on with that kid, and it’s all positive.”

Still, though Dutton wrote that the catching future for the Royals “might be sooner than once imagined,” and that “More than ever, [his] timetable is under review,” nowhere in the piece does Dutton or any Royals staff insinuate that Perez could have been an August call-up. Indeed, Perez’s meteoric rise through the minor league system happened in spite of his total absence from any league-wide top prospect lists. Baseball-America ranked him as the 17th-best prospect in the Royals’ farm system.

Of course, we know what happened. Perez started the year in Double-A Northwest Arkansas. After holding his own, the Royals promoted him to Triple-A Omaha, where again he held his own. Then, after 12 games, the Royals called Perez up to the bigs.

The Royals valued Perez’s defensive impact highly enough that merely adequate offense propelled him to Kansas City. The Royals had also clearly targeted Perez as the Catcher of the Future, and when he performed up to par in a year in which there was an open spot for him, he made a move for that spot and the Royals obliged to promote him.

Why the history lesson? Well, there’s an interesting situation playing out this year that has parallels to 2011. Perez will play zero games for the Royals this year after getting Tommy John surgery on his elbow. And while Kansas City picked up Martin Maldonado as a stopgap option, he’s on a one-year deal that will be attractive midseason trade bait. Like 2011, the Royals are bad, and like 2011 they are looking to turn to younger players.

Most interestingly, the Royals have another young, fascinating catcher in the minor leagues. MJ Melendez doesn’t have the raw size of Perez, but Melendez’s 6’1” frame is an extremely athletic one. Like Perez, Melendez is getting some prospect hype even though he’s not on any top 100 lists yet; J.J. Cooper wrote in Baseball-America in January that Melendez is a potential breakout candidate, citing Melendez’s strong arm, athleticism, and in-game power. Like Perez, Melendez spent his age-19 season at Low-A Lexington and is poised to begin his age-20 season, also like Perez, at High-A Wilmington.

Is Melendez likely to debut in the big leagues this year? The answer, just like the answer for anybody making their High-A debut at the beginning of the season, is no. Very few players make that jump. But a read between the lines of general manager Dayton Moore’s quotes about Melendez after announcing Perez’s surgery are certainly curious. On one hand, Dave Skretta of AP Sports reported that Moore stressed that “the Royals have no intention of rushing MJ the big leagues,” a sentiment cemented by the signing of Maldonado.

But Moore’s other quote about Melendez is far more interesting:

‘’We’ll play that out and see where he is in July or August and if indeed we need some help there,’’ Moore said. ‘’But you have to look at this as a positive, that it gives others an opportunity.’’

Could this be GM speak—the type of quote that ultimately means nothing because Moore has to say something to reporters? Maybe. Certainly, parsing quotes like this is mostly a waste of time. It is, however, curious that Moore said this specifically when it could have been just as easy to blather something about letting Melendez develop and he’s ready when he’s ready and whatnot and forthwith.

Melendez isn’t Perez, and there’s no guarantee he’ll succeed. You can frame comparisons between the two positively or negatively depending on your perspective. Melendez has hit for at least 21% above league average both seasons he’s played professionally, which is quite impressive and significantly better than Perez performed at the same age. However, Melendez has struck out three times as often as Perez did, raising legitimate concerns about his hit tool further up the minor league chain. And while Melendez is a good fielder, he’s not the fielder Perez was (and is, bum arm aside).

But, like in 2011, the catcher spot in the big leagues is up for the taking. With a strong start to the year, Melendez could be that guy. And even if he’s not that guy this year, he could make a strong move to make his debut early next year.

As Gandalf the White once said: The board is set. The pieces are moving. Keep your eye on Melendez. Just like last time, the next Royals franchise catcher could be here sooner than you might think.