The notion is difficult, almost impossible, to comprehend. Most fans of the KC Royals might even consider it crazy.
But the concept of trading MJ Melendez, the organization’s fourth best prospect per MLB Pipeline, makes a certain kind of sense and isn’t as logic-defying as it may seem.
Melendez is, of course, the present heir apparent to Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez. He dominated minor league pitching this season, first at Double-A Northwest Arkansas where he hit .285 with 28 home runs, then at Triple-A Omaha where he added 13 homers and batted .293.
Also impressive, especially for a young power hitter whose 41 homers led the minors, was his season OBP of .386. Melendez is also an excellent defensive catcher with a superb arm.
With such credentials, why think trade when it comes to Melendez?
It’s simple. He and the Royals both have problems. Dealing him could solve both.
Melendez’s problem isn’t of his making. It is, in a nutshell, Perez himself who creates the difficulty. Perez’s new contract, which takes effect in 2022 and is the biggest in franchise history, binds him to the Royals for at least four more years. Presuming no rapid diminution of his formidable skills, Perez’s continued presence behind the plate for that long effectively impedes Melendez’s advancement.
Melendez is too talented to spend much time on the bench as a Perez backup; he needs to play regularly, not once or twice a week when Perez rests or takes a turn at DH, and because he won’t (and certainly shouldn’t) displace Perez, his alternatives are few—he dabbled at third base late this season and is sufficiently athletic that first base or right field could be in play. Serving as a designated hitter isn’t out of the question, but wouldn’t be ideal.
But the Royals will probably have Bobby Witt Jr. at third, already have Carlos Santana at first, and Nick Pratto appears ready to take over there if Santana fails or the Royals try to move him at the 2022 trade deadline, which they almost certainly will. Right field is probably better for Melendez unless the Royals are convinced Kyle Isbel is the answer there or decide it’s a good spot for Hunter Dozier and his oversized $25 million contract.
So it is that unless Perez suffers a long-term injury or moves to DH far sooner than anyone anticipates, Melendez may not fit easily into Kansas City’s everyday lineup.
He is, however, significantly valuable to Kansas City in another way.
Trading MJ Melendez could reap some immediate big league benefits for the KC Royals.
Dealing away MJ Melendez before he plays even a single game for Kansas City isn’t an option the Royals probably prefer. He’s become a dangerous minor league hitter, and nothing suggests his bat won’t play well in the majors.
But trading Melendez might pay quick dividends—it wouldn’t be moving an established star for prospects, it would be trading a top prospect for immediate big league help.
Think starting pitching, something these Royals could use considering their problematic current rotation’s lack of success. With whom, though, might Kansas City partner up with in a Melendez deal?
Tampa Bay, where Mike Zunino currently catches, is a possibility. Zunino was one of three candidates for the 2021 Silver Slugger Perez recently won, but his bat still leaves much to be desired—he clubbed 33 homers this season, but hit only .216 and hadn’t been above Mendoza since barely topping it at .201 in 2018. He’s a career .202 hitter with a .274 OBP. And at 30 (31 in March), he’s almost eight full years older than Melendez, who’ll be 23 Monday.
Melendez would cost the Rays. KC might demand starter Shane McClanahan in return. Like KC’s Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch and Jon Heasley, McClanahan is a 2018 draft choice who made it to the majors without stopping at Triple-A; Singer and Bubic did it in 2020, Lynch, Heasley and McClanahan in 2021. While Singer and Bubic were unspectacular in their rookie season, Lynch had some pretty rough moments, and Heasley pitched only three times, McClanahan was 10-6 and won more games than any other regular Tampa starter.
McClanahan’s control was excellent (2.70 BB/9) and he struck out over 10 batters per nine innings. He relies primarily on a four-seamer averaging in the mid-to-upper 90’s; also in his arsenal are a curve, slider and changeup.
A Melendez-for-McClanahan deal would likely require more from one or both sides, but they would be the feature attractions.
The potentially backstop-strapped Cubs could also use a catcher, but their parallel need for starters means they won’t be ideal for Kansas City to bargain with. The Yankees could be looking to replace Gary Sanchez, who like Zunino hits for power and not much else, but aren’t going to let Gerrit Cole, their most appealing starter, go for Melendez, and the KC Royals won’t assume the balance of Cole’s $324 million contract that isn’t up until the 2028 season ends.
There are other sources for starting pitching, of course. And the Royals could also seek a right fielder in exchange for Melendez, but why do that if he’s probably capable of playing there anyway?
Should the KC Royals even consider trading MJ Melendez at this stage in his career?
This is the core question. Kansas City will receive top talent for Melendez, but he’s also that type of talent and shouldn’t be shopped unless the club feels it has no viable alternative and the potential return is certain to be of quick high impact at the big league level.
That’s why Melendez’s immediate future is something to which the Royals must give deep and careful thought.
A trade involving MJ Melendez could be big for the KC Royals. It’s also something they shouldn’t proceed with hastily.