KANSAS CITY -- The Royals heard all that noisy contact MJ Melendez was making at Double-A Northwest Arkansas loud and clear.
The organization’s No. 13 prospect and top catching prospect, per MLB Pipeline was promoted to Triple-A Omaha on Monday. Melendez will join Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto on the Storm Chasers' roster three weeks after the two infielders were promoted from Double-A.
“It was surreal,” Melendez said about the promotion as he was driving to Omaha on Monday. “I’ve never gotten called up before. It was a first for me. I spent the last couple seasons in the same spot the whole entire year. At first, I didn’t really know how to react. I was stunned. It’s just starting to hit me now.”
Melendez currently ranks second among all Minor Leaguers with 28 home runs this year. He’s hitting .285/.372/.628 and was leading all Double-A players in homers, RBIs (65), slugging percentage, OPS (.999), extra-base hits (46) and total bases (187). He was named the Double-A Central Player of the Month for July, batting .333 with 12 homers and 11 multihit games.
With those numbers, Melendez had to think that a promotion was coming soon.
“I was definitely hoping so,” Melendez said, laughing. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to play front office. I just knew I needed to keep doing what I was doing, continue to press on and put up good numbers and play hard. That was the most important thing for me. I knew if I did that, the rest would take care of itself.”
The reason Melendez stayed in Double-A for so long was because the Royals wanted to get him ample time behind the plate, especially having a year off from calling meaningful games while at the alternate training site last year. There’s a logjam at the catching position in Triple-A, with Sebastian Rivero -- whose defense is highly regarded in the organization -- and Meibrys Viloria splitting the most time, along with Nick Dini and Nate Esposito also on the roster.
But Melendez’s offense forced the Royals’ hand.
“It’s hard to ignore what he’s doing,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said last weekend before Melendez was promoted. “He’s certainly handling the league offensively. We wanted to maximize the time [Rivero and Melendez] get as the primary catcher. But for as well as he’s hitting, it’s going to be hard to continue on that path.”
Melendez will likely get time at other positions in Triple-A beyond catcher and designated hitter. He played outfield and some third base at the alternate site last year, and with Salvador Perez catching in Kansas City, the Royals don’t see harm in increasing Melendez’s versatility, while also still emphasizing his future is catching.
“Thinking about the future, given MJ’s athleticism, you start looking at other positions, just to get him on the field more,” Picollo said. “So whenever his bat’s ready for the Major Leagues, we feel it’s our job to have him play wherever he’s going to play. … MJ is good enough to do it. We don’t want to make it a focus for him, because you still want him to get better and better at catching. But those are the conversations we’re having.”
The logjam is a good problem to have for the Royals and their future, and even more so after Melendez’s 2019 season in Class A Advanced Wilmington.
Two years after he was selected in the second round of the 2017 Draft, Melendez hit .163 with just nine homers in 110 games. His .260 on-base percentage in 2019 was one of the worst in the league, and he had a 39.4 percent strikeout rate.
The Royals’ overhaul with their Minor League hitting department benefited players like Melendez. Players received individualized help with their approach, and Melendez’s was focused on pitch selection and his swing.
“As much as it sucked not having games, I feel like the alternate site was the best possible thing that could have happened to me, honestly,” Melendez said. “Facing our top pitchers in a game-like setting without the pressure of putting up stats, it allowed me to work on things. And it let me find the things that worked and some things that didn’t. I was able to play around with a lot, and it’s all come into one thing that I’m really excited about.”
Melendez worked with coaches on toning down a big leg kick that caused him to commit to pitches earlier. By staying back longer, he’s recognizing pitches better and feels like he has a better plan at the plate than past years.
“That’s been one of the most important things for me is being able to swing at good pitches,” Melendez said. “I know guys, especially as of late, have been trying to pitch around me and throw more offspeed to get me to chase.
“So being able to stay within my point and approach, not go after what the pitcher is trying to get me to do, is extremely important. It just helps me get better pitches to hit and drive.”
Consistent contact is what the Royals wanted to see from their up-and-coming catcher this season.
And it earned him a promotion.
“Every objective we had for him, he’s met,” Picollo said. “He’s always had the power, but he’s more selective now. More focused early in the count. More focused on hitting it the other way. He’s figured out a way to develop his approach, and he’s being consistent with it.”