The road to the big leagues has been filled with twists and turns for MJ Melendez, from his second-round selection in the 2017 draft, to his disastrous 2019 season in Wilmington, to last year when he led all minor leaguers with 41 home runs. After a brief spell in Omaha this season, he has made his splash with the Royals, with a team-best OPS+ of 123 in his first 38 games, with a line of .248/.336/.450 with six home runs.
With seven-time All-Star Salvador Perez already at catcher, the Royals have had Melendez spend some time in right field to get more playing time. Melendez has held his own out there, raising questions as to whether his future belongs in the outfield.
While catchers are typically thought of as heavier, slow-footed players not suited for catching fly balls in spacious outfields like Kauffman Stadium, Melendez is very athletic with good speed. Baseball Savant grades his sprint speed in the 67th percentile, better than Gold Glove winner Andrew Benintendi.
He wouldn’t be the first catcher to move from behind the plate to the outfield. Dale Murphy, Dave Nilsson, Eli Marrero, and Robert Fick are some players who transitioned from backstop to outfielder, and Daulton Varsho is playing both positions for the Diamondbacks right now.
Moving to right field would solve a few problems for the Royals. It would allow them to fit both him and Salvy in the lineup at the same time. If Melendez stuck at catcher and Salvy was the one that moved, the only real option is moving Salvy to first base and/or designated hitter, positions that will likely be occupied in the near future by Nick Pratto and/or Vinnie Pasquantino. Salvy also may not have quite the bat to play those positions, particularly if his power begins to wane as he ages.
Plus the Royals don’t really have a right fielder of the future. Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares are possibilities, but more likely they are players in the mix, not set starters. Melendez can solidify the position for years with a bat good enough to play at what has traditionally been a power-hitting, run-producing position. And concentrating on the outfield full time could allow him to develop his bat even more.
On the other hand, Melendez has the tools to stick behind the plate, shouldn’t he stay there to maximize his value? He features a strong arm and as the son of a college baseball coach, he has the intangibles and leadership qualities to be a field general. A solid defensive catcher with his kind of bat could be one of the most valuable players in the game, why move him to right field where his defense is less certain.
There have been questions about Melendez’s defense behind the plate. In his first few weeks, he has made some erratic throws and looked a bit shaky as a backstop. His framing has not been good either, although that is a problem that has plagued Salvy as well.
There is another option - third base. With Bobby Witt Jr. seemingly at shortstop for good, third base has opened up. Emmanuel Rivera is getting a long look there, and while he got off to a good start and looked like a long-term possibility, he has since gone in a funk. In 230 career big league plate appearances, he is hitting just .230/.287/.366. Melendez has yet to play third base at the big league level, but the Royals did try him there in a few games at the end of last year for Omaha.
Melendez has a sweet swing and a mature approach to the plate that his lineup desperately needs. Regardless of where he plays, the future looks bright for MJ.
Where should MJ Melendez play long-term?
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