The Royals have promoted catcher MJ Melendez to Triple-A Omaha after he absolutely destroyed Double-A. In 79 games with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the 22-year old hit .285/.372/.628 and his 28 home runs tied for the most in the minor leagues.
His performance is drawing national recognition with Jeff Passan mentioning the left-handed slugger in a recent piece as a prospect to watch, and Baseball America ranking him as the #95 prospect in all of baseball. Melendez rebounded from an awful 2019 season, and he and prospect Nick Pratto are the crowning jewels in a revamped minor league hitting development process that has drawn rave reviews.
Melendez is on the cusp of making the big leagues, but with All-Star catcher Salvador Perez under contract through at least 2025, there is a question on what the Royals will do with Melendez once he’s ready. Let’s take a look at the options.
Split time with Salvador Perez
The great thing about the American League is you can start two catchers at once - just put one at designated hitter. The Royals are already playing Salvy at DH more to rest his legs - he has 86 starts at catcher this season, 24 at designated hitter. He has had the bat to be a productive DH too, hitting .274/.307/.506 with the fourth-most home runs in the league (27). The average American League DH this year is hitting just .249/.319/.452. Salvy and Melendez could just alternate days they catch, with the other serving as DH on the days they are not catching.
This would probably require a third catcher to be on the roster in case there was an injury (if you move your DH to a defensive position, you lose the DH for the remainder of the game), but that shouldn’t be too big of an issue with both Cam Gallagher and Sebastian Rivero both capable of serving as a backup. The bigger issue is perhaps what does this do for Melendez’s development if he’s spending so much time not catching? Salvy is still starting behind the plate 75 percent of the time, and while you could ratchet that back to 50/50, that is still half the season that Melendez is not behind the plate. You’re also shelving a Gold Glove-winning catcher at DH, which may save his legs, but seems a bit of a waste.
And how sustainable is Salvy at DH really? He is smacking home runs at a prodigious pace and is only barely better than the average DH by OPS because his on-base average is so low. What happens as he ages and he can no longer hit so many home runs? Much of Salvy’s value is wrapped up in his defense. Move him to DH and he becomes a pretty fungible hitter.
Still, there have been some concerns about Salvy’s defensive skills eroding as he ages. Framing has always been a weak spot for him. And the scouting reports on Melendez’s defense have generally been pretty glowing, with Fangraphs grading him a 55 on defense with MLB Pipeline lauding his “cannon of an arm” and “impressive blocking and receiving skills.” Even with his low on-base skills, Salvy could still be a power-hitting DH the lineup needs. Perhaps Melendez can be a way to ease Salvy off the position eventually.
Trade MJ Melendez
The Royals have a good stockpile of catching depth in the organization, with Salvy, Melendez, Gallagher, Rivero, Meibrys Viloria, and even a bit of buzz over Kale Emshoff and Omar Hernandez. The Royals have Salvy in tow for the next four seasons, so why not trade Melendez while he has a lot of trade value to address other needs?
And the Royals still have other needs! They don’t seem to have a long-term answer in centerfield, where impending free agent Michael Taylor and his underwhelming bat have played all season. Andrew Benintendi will be a free agent the year after that, and there is very little outfield depth in the organization. Melendez could also be used as part of a big package for a high-impact player, the way the Royals traded Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery to the Rays for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.
Melendez is a Top 100 prospect, according to Baseball America, but trading catchers is always a bit tricky since only certain teams have a need for that position. Still, a player at his age putting up his kind of power numbers should be in some demand.
Trade Salvador Perez
Blasphemy! Salvy has been with the organization since 2006, and has earned virtually every accolade a catcher can earn in his time with the Royals - Gold Glove awards, Silver Slugger awards, World Series MVP - he could very well end up with a statue at the K or with his number retired. Could the Royals actually deal him?
Dayton Moore talked about being more “transactional”, and this would be the ultimate test of that assertion. A more transactional club like the Rays would definitely be looking to move an over 30-year old player on an expensive long-term deal - they did not hesitate to move franchise star Evan Longoria.
But this may be a situation where Salvy just means more to the Royals than any other club. While he still has value, teams may not be lining up to take the remaining $82 million contract for a catcher his age. Meanwhile, fans may just burn the stadium down if Salvy is traded.
Move MJ Melendez to another position
This is the hardest to figure since it requires much more speculation. Melendez seems quite athletic, with a terrific arm. It seems like it shouldn’t be that hard to move him to another position. Tell him, Wash.
It’s not unusual for an offensive-minded catcher to be moved off the position - Craig Biggio, Dale Murphy, Joey Votto, Paul Konerko, and Carlos Delgado all begin their minor league careers behind the plate only to move to another position. First base would seem to be blocked in Kansas City with Nick Pratto pencilled in future lineups, but perhaps Melendez could transition to another position. Third base? A corner outfield spot? Maybe?! If he continues to hit like this, his bat will play just about anywhere.
Ultimately, this is a really good problem to have. Melendez’s emergence gives the Royals a lot of options moving forward. But with the way he’s hitting, they’ll have to make a decision on how to handle him pretty soon.