MJ Melendez, a top Kansas City prospect, took a bit of a break Friday night. The regular catcher for the KC Royals’ Double-A Northwest Arkansas affiliate took a turn as the club’s designated hitter, thus sparing himself from another evening spent enduring the continuing physical rigors of life behind the plate.
Melendez did not, however, take respite from punishing opposing pitchers. Instead, he homered, walked twice, and drove in two runs in a 1-for-3 performance that helped the Naturals beat Wichita 9-1.
The home run was Melendez’s 25th of the season, the highest total in the minor leagues through Saturday’s games. His two RBIs gave him 61, the best in Double-A through the same period.
And after going 1-for-4 with a double Saturday, Melendez is slashing .290/.381/.629. A poor June (he hit only .219) is an outlier compared to his .322/.422/.662 May and .333/.411/.741 July.
The numbers are the best of Melendez’s professional career, a welcome improvement over the distressing .163/.260/.311 he struggled to in 2019 after hitting 19 homers with 73 RBIs and a .251 average at Class A Lexington in 2018.
His excellent 2021 campaign confirms his hot prospect status and reestablishes his place as an heir-apparent to present Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez.
And therein lies the problem MJ Melendez poses for the KC Royals.
Melendez is, for all practical purposes, stuck in Perez’s line of succession.
The first impediment to his progress is, of course, Perez who, at 31 and preparing to start a new, minimum four-year contract next season, is posting some of the best numbers of his career. He isn’t going anywhere soon and is probably a couple of seasons away from spending more time as the club’s designated hitter and taking a few more days off.
Then there’s Cam Gallagher, Perez’s capable and reliable backup who is perfect in that role.
Also blocking Melendez, at least for the time being, are Triple-A Omaha’s catchers, primarily Sebastian Rivero and Meibrys Viloria. Rivero was Kansas City’s first choice to replace Gallagher when he was on the Injured List earlier this season and is batting .283 in 29 games for the Storm Chasers, while Viloria, who made it to Kauffman Stadium for parts of each season from 2018-2020, is hitting .243 with a .383 OBP in 48 games.
Clearly, Kansas City’s catching inventory is so well-stocked that Melendez, now the best hitter of the bunch other than Perez, appears to have nowhere to go.
So, what to do with him?
The KC Royals have some options when it comes to prospect MJ Melendez.
Obviously, the Royals can leave Melendez right where he is for the rest of this season. He’s clearly comfortable with Double-A pitching and the Naturals are doing well with him behind the plate. But there isn’t much more for him to prove in Double-A ball.
The Royals could also promote Melendez to Omaha; the Storm Chasers already have four catchers, though, so someone would have to go.
How about the Royals themselves? It won’t be long before the club wants to test Melendez against major league pitching, a step achievable only by bringing him up. But three backstops are one too many for the big club, and KC isn’t going to slow Melendez’s development by promoting him to the majors only to have him ride the bench. Perhaps they’ll use one of their two extra September roster spots on him when they’re more prone to giving Perez time off as the season winds down.
Finally, Kansas City could trade Melendez—although the major league deal deadline passed Friday, minor league deals involving players not on their organizations’ 40-man rosters are still allowed, and Melendez isn’t on the Royals’ current 40-man.
Some might encourage such a move. Barring major injury to their seven-time All-Star catcher, the Royals won’t have any reason to replace Perez for several years, making even good catchers in their minor league system expendable. Especially backstops like Melendez who have presumptively good trade value.
Trading Melendez, though, means jettisoning who is, at the moment, the most rapidly developing catching prospect in the KC system.
What should the KC Royals do now with MJ Melendez?
Fortunately, Kansas City doesn’t need to immediately move any of its catchers. But if the Royals want to advance Melendez soon, Omaha is the logical destination—the Storm Chasers’ season isn’t scheduled to end until Oct. 3 and they, more than any team in the organization, can afford to lose a catcher to make room for Melendez.
Although he has some big league experience, Nick Dini is the most readily-expendable Omaha catcher. He’s hitting .333, but in only 13 games and, at 28, doesn’t have a great future with the Royals with Rivero, Viloria, Melendez, Kale Emshoff (Low-A), and 2021 third-round draft pick Carter Jensen in the system.
The Royal brass might also consider trading, or temporarily demoting, Viloria to give Melendez a shot at Triple-A for the remainder of this campaign. (Rivero’s presence on the 40-man precludes a minor league trade, but he could be sent to Double-A).
And perhaps Melendez will snare one of the two extra spots available when big league clubs can expand their active rosters in September.
Melendez’s resurgence creates a logistical personnel problem for the KC Royals. For now, though, it’s a good problem: the club can keep him at Double-A to bolster the Naturals’ roster, test him against better Triple-A pitching, give him a late-season taste of the majors, or even package him in a minor league deal that could reap a handsome return.
Kansas City has a stellar catching prospect in MJ Melendez. He presents a problem for the organization, but it’s the kind of problem that’s nice to have.