SURPRISE, Ariz. -- In the bottom of the sixth inning Wednesday afternoon in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the Royals were playing the Rockies at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Kansas City made a slew of defensive changes.
One of them was MJ Melendez, the Royals’ top catching prospect and No. 2 overall on Kansas City’s Top 30 list, checking in at third base. It was Melendez’s first appearance at the hot corner this spring, and while it doesn’t signal a big change coming for the high-ceiling catcher, it does give a peek into the Royals’ plans when Melendez is ready for his debut.
Melendez, who crushed a pinch-hit, two-out home run in the ninth inning of the Royals’ 8-4 loss to the Rangers at Surprise Stadium on Friday, was the Minor League home run leader last year with 41. He finished 2021 with a .288/.386/.625 line and 21.7 percent strikeout rate over 123 games spent between Double-A and Triple-A.
Few Minor Leaguers did more to rebuild their stocks last season as Melendez, and now he is on the verge of the Majors. The swing he had Friday showed precisely why. It was his second time getting ready to pinch-hit -- he was on deck in the bottom of the sixth before the inning ended -- and he fouled off two quick strikes against Eris Filpo. Melendez then crushed a fastball away straight over the center-field wall for a no-doubter on a hot Arizona day with no wind.
“He’s absolutely come a long way with his swing,” manager Mike Matheny said. “He’s dangerous.”
The only problem -- and the Royals wouldn’t call this a problem at all -- is that there’s a seven-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glover and World Series winner as the Royals’ backstop of the foreseeable future.
Melendez isn’t gunning for Salvador Perez’s spot in 2022, but if he continues to rake in Triple-A, the Royals will want to see his bat in Kansas City at some point this season.
“That’s part of the reason we’ve had some of the looks of MJ at different places, knowing that’s a bat that was very good last year,” Matheny said. “If he’s able to keep making those strides, how do we get him opportunities if any present themselves? It’s just trying to be a little creative and not making wholesale changes. Because he’s a good catcher. It’s just where’s the opportunity, and how do we make the most of the talent and opportunity combined?”
Melendez is a plus defender behind the plate and is catching regularly, but he’s been getting reps in at third base and the outfield on the backfields. He’s seen game action at third base only and is open to wherever the Royals need him.
“At the end of the day, what I want to do is help the team win, and I’ll do that in any way I can,” Melendez said. “I feel like if I can produce on the offensive side, being able to find a position for me to play at on some days is definitely a very real option. Whatever it is that they ask me to do, if I can do it, I know that I’ll put 100 percent of my effort into it, whether it’s third base, catching [or] DH-ing.”
Third base brings a different pace of game from catching, where Melendez is involved in every pitch. He’s learning the nuances of the infield, but he fits well there because of his plus arm and quick instincts.
“I do like it,” Melendez said. “It’s definitely a different pace of game. You’re not involved in every single play like you are when you’re catching. I think the hardest part is making sure that I’m always ready and keeping my arm ready and loose. You may not get a play for a couple innings, so staying alert [and] staying aware, because the ball could get hit to you at any moment.”
Hernández’s spring debut
Right-hander Carlos Hernández made his spring debut Friday, and his stuff was better than his final line of three runs allowed in two innings showed. Brad Miller annihilated a first-pitch fastball for a leadoff home run, and Eli White followed that inning with a two-run blast of his own.
But Hernández and the Royals were happy with his attack-first mentality, despite what the line said. Hernández looked much better in his second inning, generating weak contact and striking out Miller to end the inning.
“We want him attacking the zone and trusting his stuff,” Matheny explained. “You’ve got 98-100 mph and a plus changeup, and you can go to a curveball and slider and throw both for strikes. Fill it up. Trust your stuff. This is without game-planning, knowing which guys are going to come up there ready to swing at the first-pitch fastball. That’s more information we’ll have once we go into the season.
“Right now, it’s about pitch execution.”
Brentz makes quick work in 7th
Jake Brentz didn’t have a chance to throw his changeup on Friday because he only needed five pitches to get three outs. The hard-throwing lefty’s outing was about as efficient as it could have been.
“We want him efficient in the zone like that,” Matheny said. “… He’s got plenty of weapons to do it with, and the ball was jumping out of his hands today.”
Brentz has introduced a two-seam fastball to his repertoire this spring to get horizontal break, as opposed to the vertical movement on his four-seam fastball. Pairing the two-seamer with his four-seamer along with his biting slider gives Brentz another weapon as the league adjusts to his second season.
“I worked hard this offseason making sure I could throw any pitch in any count,” Brentz explained. “I’m doing that right now, and I’m just trying to attack people right now. Figuring out where to throw that two-seamer and going out there to get ahead of guys and put them away.”