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The Curious Case of MJ Melendez

The catcher-turned-outfielder is entering make-or-break territory

Cleveland Guardians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If we’re being honest, we don’t know what the Royals are doing. Rumor has it that they are doing things differently than the previous regime. But they have been giving mixed signals.

We’re fresh off the Winter Meetings, where general manager J.J. Picollo said the team is looking to spend around $30 million this offseason if the right players are there. He also said MJ Melendez would focus on the outfield.

The way we’re set up right now with Salvy and Freddy, we don’t need to put that work on MJ. If something happened to where we traded one of those guys, then we would look at it again, because it’s not that he can’t do it, it’s just we don’t need him to do it. And we’re not looking to trade Salvy and Freddy.

This one is tricky, but my first thought when I read this was black and white - it’s time to trade MJ Melendez. Now, that was a bit rash, so I formulated a question: Should the Royals trade MJ Melendez? Not quite as rash, but a bit premature. So let’s settle on this: What the heck should the Royals do with MJ Melendez? There are several factors, but here are a few of note.

Is Salvador Perez in Kansas City for the long haul?

Salvador Perez is one of the most loyal athletes in the sport and has never expressed a desire to leave Kansas City. However, nearly 10 years removed from the World Series and stuck on a hapless team that has lost 100 games in three of its last six seasons, he isn’t unwilling to leave either. Jon Heyman reported this last season.

One potential landing spot that made sense was Miami. Salvy lives in Florida, and insider Jayson Stark reported that he was “particularly open” to a trade to Miami. However, Stark’s sources quickly put an end to that.

The trade never happened, and here we are. However, this is the first time in Salvy’s career that he’s entered the offseason with trade rumors swirling. The Royals have shut these down quickly, as seen in Picollo’s latest comments.

As Picollo said, if Salvy is in Kansas City (and even Freddy Fermin, to be frank), Melendez will be in the outfield. Perez could theoretically get more time at DH, as he has in the past, but the emergence of Fermin has further cemented Melendez’s fate out from behind home plate. So, it would appear that Melendez’s days as a catcher in Kansas City are likely over.

Can Melendez be a viable player anywhere other than catcher?

I should note here that Melendez has never been a good defender behind the plate as a Major Leaguer. He was in the first or second percentile in Blocks Above Average and framing metrics in 2022. However as a prospect, he was a viable defender with upside behind the plate. He had an average pop time in 2022, along with an above-average caught-stealing rate.

Salvy may not be great evidence for this, but framing and blocking are fixable things relatively speaking – at least compared to arm strength. This is all to say that as bad as Melendez was behind the plate as a rookie, he was as bad, if not worse as an outfielder. He logged -12 Outs Above Average, was one of the worst outfielders in the league at getting good jumps, and ranked dead last among qualified outfielders in error runs above average.

The calculus here is pretty simple. In 2023, outfielders across the league hit at a 103 wRC+ clip. Catchers, on the other hand, hit at a 90 wRC+ clip. MJ finished the year with a 92 wRC+. Now, to be fair to MJ, he was also the unluckiest hitter alive to start the season and put together a 124 wRC+ in the second half.

But as the theory goes, MJ has to hit more to be of any value in the outfield.

Let’s be more specific: Can MJ Melendez be a viable outfielder?

This is the question that prompted my original thought. I like Melendez a lot as a fan. He’s a fun and exciting player. But is he going to hit enough to stick in the outfield?

In 2023, MJ ranked in the 90th percentile in arm strength and was top 20 in arm value. He has slightly above-average sprint speed, so there is no reason to think that MJ couldn’t become a viable outfielder. After all, Alex Gordon became an all-world outfielder after coming up as a third baseman. As I noted earlier, you can teach angles and footwork in a way that you can’t teach physical tools like arm strength. In that sense, MJ has a head start.

I think MJ’s errors are a good example of this. We all remember Alex letting that fly ball sail over his head in right field at Yankee Stadium during his first cup of coffee in the outfield. Errors are correctable. However, his teammate Edward Olivares is a great example of what MJ is facing.

Olivares finished third on the Royals with a 105 wRC+, yet finished the season as a 0.4 fWAR player thanks to cataclysmic defense in right field. And similar to Melendez, Olivares has a 90th percentile arm. Melendez doesn’t have to be exceptional at the plate or in the outfield to be a viable starter. But if he isn’t going to be well above average at one, he cannot be one of the worst in the league at the other.

What is the breaking point?

This is a bit of a make-or-break season for MJ. He knows he’s an outfielder in 2024 and has had an entire offseason to remedy some of the problems he had in 2023. To be fair to him, he was learning on the fly at the big-league level, which is not easy.

My initial instinct to trade him was overstepping. This is the same player who hit 41 homers between AA and AAA just three years ago and whose makeup translates well to the modern game. Even with his walk rate dropping significantly in 2023, his 10.3% clip was the 7th best season of the Dayton Moore/Picollo era. Only two Royals with at least 1000 plate appearances have a higher rate in the post-strike era than Melendez’s 11.3%.

Trading him would be selling too low on a guy that doesn’t have much value at the moment, for a team that doesn’t have anything better to do than give him 600 plate appearances. But this year will be our first look at whether Melendez can be a full-time outfielder. He posted a 1.0 fWAR in the 2nd half, which is a ~2.5 fWAR pace over 162 games. That required a 124 wRC+ thanks to his gloomy -5.8 defensive runs above average.

The biggest difference between that breakout second half and the first half of the season, or even his rookie season? The power. MJ draws his walks, but the power comes in spurts. He hit 18 homers his rookie season, but slugged under .400. In the second half of the season, he slugged at a near .500 clip.

I started this writing process believing the Royals should trade Melendez because he won’t ever be a viable outfielder. I’ll end it with the belief that he can be if that power can come around.

Poll

Do you think MJ Melendez can be a long-term starter in the outfield?

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    Yes
    (176 votes)
  • 41%
    No
    (228 votes)
  • 26%
    Maybe
    (148 votes)
552 votes total Vote Now