Young stars MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto are two reasons the KC Royals opened spring camp with more talent, and more hope, than they’ve had in Arizona for several years.
Both arrived in Surprise with Kansas City fans still giddy over the resurgent minor league seasons the pair enjoyed in 2021. Melendez’s award-winning campaign—a minors-leading 41 homers with 103 RBIs, a .288 average and .386 OBP—followed his horrendous 2019 .163 season at High-A Wilmington, and Pratto put his nightmarish .164 effort with the same club behind him with 36 homers, 98 RBIs and a .265/.385/.602 line.
Now reaffirmed, their talent and potential are indisputable; indeed, MLB Pipeline ranks first baseman Pratto as the Royals’ second best prospect, and catcher Melendez its fourth.
Many hope both take their first swings in the majors this season. That’s going to happen, but their debuts are now on hold. The Royals made their first significant roster moves of the spring Monday evening, including optioning Melendez and Pratto to Triple-A Omaha.
The options weren’t unexpected. They are, in fact, understandable for more reasons than one.
Other KC Royals players are currently blocking MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto.
That the two prospects’ paths to Kauffman Stadium are impeded is no secret. Salvador Perez stands in Melendez’s way and, unless he makes an unlikely move to first base or designated hitter, will for several years. Melendez could take backup catcher Cam Gallagher’s job now, but sitting Melendez on the bench all season would be baseball malpractice.
Melendez could, as we mentioned here recently, still open the season in Kansas City as one of the two extra players clubs can carry through April and spend a month playing different positions. Optioning him to Omaha now makes that unlikely and gives him the chance to move around the field, something he’s done this spring as the club tries to find a place (or places) for him. But watch for him later this year.
Pratto’s situation isn’t as complicated. Carlos Santana is Kansas City’s current choice at first base, but he’s entering the final year of his contract and, considering Pratto’s progress, isn’t a good candidate for an extension; he’ll probably be gone by the trade deadline if not sooner.
The Royals should move Pratto in as soon as they move Santana out. While Hunter Dozier could and has played first, he’s a better choice for DH and occasionally spelling Bobby Witt Jr. at third or Whit Merrifield in right.
The bottom line for Melendez and Pratto is Kansas City clearly intends Omaha to be their first 2022 stop. Their roads to Kansas City are blocked for now.
There are other players the KC Royals may need to consider for roster spots.
Kansas City’s spring complex is packed with talent, so much so that roster decisions required to be made between now and the morning of the club’s April 7 opener may be more difficult than usual.
Take the outfield. It’s now set left-to-right with Andrew Benintendi, Michal A. Taylor and Whit Merrifield, but the Royals also need a reserve outfielder or two. The current front-runner may well be Edward Olivares, who hammered a grand slam and went 2-for-3 in KC’s 19-9 shellacking of the Guardians Monday and is hitting .611 with a 1.989 OPS. Kyle Isbel, who hit .276 in 28 games for the Royals, is certainly in the conversation. So, too, may be offseason free agent signee and big league veteran JaCoby Jones.
And then there’s Ryan O’Hearn, the once-promising hitter who’s averaged .205 over the last three seasons (only last year’s .225 kept him above the Mendoza Line). The Royals remain curiously tethered to hope when it comes to O’Hearn, so they’ll take him north to find out if his two-homer, 9-for-17 Cactus League performance through Monday signals an unlikely resurgence.
The roster numbers don’t lie and the simple truth is there’s a crunch of sorts, one that requires the Royals to keep a player or two at the expense of others like Melendez and Pratto.
The KC Royals may believe MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto need more seasoning.
Even after their superb 2021 campaigns, Kansas City could be thinking Melendez and Pratto require more time in the minors. It won’t be the case that management fears their stellar seasons were flukes—after all, luck can’t explain what they did last year. Instead, the Royals probably prefer more time against Triple-A pitching over immediate promotions for both. Because Melendez and Pratto began the delayed minor league season at Northwest Arkansas, then moved to Omaha in later in the summer, neither has a full season at the higher level.
And the Royals might be right. More Triple-A at-bats can’t hurt.
So, with all said and done, and if circumstances don’t change to allow Melendez and Pratto to break camp with the big club, don’t feel bad for either. They’ll make it to Kansas City soon enough.
Kansas City understandably optioned MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto Monday.