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Is it early? Yes. Should they try? Also yes.
The best teams are able to identify their young talent and make a move to get them locked into a long-term deal as soon as possible. We’ve seen that with countless young players like Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Wander Franco, Tim Anderson, Fernando Tatis Jr., etc. The Royals themselves actually did it with a young catcher about a decade ago when they signed Salvador Perez to a ridiculously undervalued deal that they eventually ripped up and gave him a better deal. I wrote way back in November about a deal the Royals could give to Bobby Witt Jr. that mayb doesn’t even stand up anymore, but today I want to look at their latest young catcher, MJ Melendez.
This one is a little trickier for a few reasons. For one, catchers don’t last. Sure, some do, but that’s a lot of wear and tear on knees and more. We see how much of a beating Perez takes on a daily basis behind the plate. It’s a thankless position and one that generally doesn’t age well. You’ll see catchers back there who are 30+, but heading into play yesterday, 15 catchers had a wRC+ of 100 or more with 100 or more plate appearances. Keep in mind that not all of these plate appearances have come as a catcher, so this is already getting loose. Four of them are older than 30. And only two of the four have more than 200 plate appearances.
But Melendez is just 23 years old, so he has a ways to go before he reaches the wrong side of 30. And, this also makes an extension difficult, he’s likely not a primary catcher for at least a little while longer because he’s on the same as Perez. So he’ll get time at DH and right field, as we’ve seen. I don’t know if he’ll see time at third base as he did in the minors, but it’s pretty clear that when Perez is healthy, Melendez is, at best, in a timeshare at the plate. And that’s probably a good thing, but makes the contract comparisons a little more difficult.
What I can tell you about him is that he has a 13.1 percent walk rate and a very respectable 22.6 percent strikeout rate in his first 168 big league plate appearances. He also has an ISO of .186 and that’s after a slump. Since 1995, there have been 15 rookies with 200 or more plate appearances in a season to have a walk rate above 12 percent and a strikeout rate below 24 percent with an ISO of .180 or higher. They are Connor Joe in 2021, Carson Kelly in 2019, Juan Soto in 2018, Rhys Hoskins in 2017, Austin Barnes in 2017, George Kottaras in 2010, Elijah Dukes in 2007, Luke Scott in 2006, Austin Kearns in 2002 Bobby Kielty in 2002, Lance Berkman in 2000, Mitch Meluskey in 2000, Andruw Jones in 1997, Chipper Jones in 1995 and Jon Nunnally in 1995. That’s out of 1,095 rookie seasons with at least 200 plate appearances.
Those numbers are definitely arbitrary and Melendez himself isn’t at 200, but I think it shows just how rare it is for a rookie to show the ability to understand the strike zone, not go down on strikes and have the kind of power he’s displayed in his first couple months in the big leagues.
I mean, how can you not want to keep swings like this in Royals blue for as long as possible?
That’s some very real power.
So the biggest question is how do you comp a guy like him? Do you look at him as a catcher or as a hitter who catches? To be transparent, I don’t know.
If you go by position and sort by catcher, there just isn’t much money there, relatively speaking. Your three biggest contracts by both total value and average annual value (AAV) are:
JT Realmuto - 5 years, $115.5 million
Salvador Perez - 4 years, $82 million
Yasmani Grandal - 4 years, $73 million
While Perez’s deal isn’t a free agent deal, for all intents and purposes, it kind of was. I suppose that he could have gotten more on the free agent market following his 48 home runs if he hadn’t signed that deal and became a free agent, but even if he did, it wouldn’t have been a significant amount more because of his age. And I don’t think he would have anyway.
To get into pre-free agency extensions, the numbers start to get pretty light. There are four catchers currently who have reached a deal before free agency:
Max Stassi - 3 years, $17.5 million
Tucker Barnhart - 4 years, $16 million
Elias Diaz - 3 years, $14.5 million
Christian Vazquez - 3 years, $13.35 million
I don’t think any of those get it done or even set a precedent. This is why a Melendez extension is pretty tough to look at. So instead of catchers, let’s dig in to some players who have signed a deal prior to their first year of service time.
Wander Franco - 11 years, $182 million
Ronald Acuña Jr. - 8 years, $100 million
Luis Robert - 6 years, $50 million
Eloy Jimenez - 6 years, $43 million
Paul DeJong - 6 years, $26 million
Tim Anderson - 6 years, $25 million
Brandon Lowe - 6 years, $24 million
This runs the gauntlet and helps quite a bit, I think, to set the stage. The Robert and Jimenez deals were before they ever stepped on the field, but they’re solid starts. Franco was the top prospect in baseball and performed when he got to the big leagues immediately. I don’t remember if Acuña was number one, but he was good from the start as well. While Melendez has been good from the start, he hasn’t been great and he wasn’t as highly regarded as those two, so there’s some separation.
I want to look at young catchers one more time to see if there are any historical precedents for a guy like him as well.
Buster Posey (25) - 8 years, $159 million
Salvador Perez (25) - 5 years, $52.5 million
Devin Mesoraco (26) - 4 years, $28 million
Yan Gomez (26) - 6 years, $23 million
There are also some others above, but those are the big ones over the last few years. It doesn’t happen much and all of them came deeper into their careers than Melendez. I also purposely didn’t include Perez’s first extension because come on.
Okay, so let’s keep those comps in mind as we move forward.
The next thing I like to do when thinking about contract extensions is what a player would make if everything goes well through their team control years. For Melendez, because of when he came up, he’ll play under the minimum salary for this year and then two more, but will end up going through arbitration four times. That means the Royals have him under team control through 2028 and that’s important to think about with someone who plays behind the plate.
So let’s say he makes about $1.5 million in his final two pre-arbitration years and then hits arbitration. A rough estimate of what he could make would be $2.5 million in his first year, $6 million second year, $12 million third year and $19 million in that final season. That’s if everything goes well for him and he doesn’t become a superstar but he’s a very good player. I’m thinking about rising salaries as well here. So in that scenario, his next six years will end up at $41 million.
But if he starts recreating his 2021 minor league season, that changes things. We’ll keep the $1.5 million for the next two years and start him at $4 million in arbitration. Then that can jump to $9 million, $13 million and $23 million by the time it’s all said and done. Now that’s six years and $50.5 million. Maybe he adds a million or two in a few years, but I don’t see a scenario where he earns more than around $55 million in his six remaining team control years. Maybe I’m way off here, but that’s if he converts to outfield full time and takes to it. I mean we’re looking at what Aaron Judge is going to make this year and that final arbitration year rivals it.
And if things go poorly, but not so poorly that the Royals end up DFAing him, he probably ends up at something like $1.5 million for the next two with arbitration numbers of $1.5 million, $3 million, $4 million and $7 million or so that’s just $17 million over six years. Remember, this is essentially just napkin math here and it’s just for a general figure.
Finding the Deal
If the Royals are signing Melendez to a long-term deal today (that starts next year), they’re going to want to go more than six seasons. While there is plenty of variability in what he could earn through the arbitration process and getting that cost fixed might not be the worst thing for the team, they can handle the top level of those six seasons without an issue and don’t need to assume the risk of extending a catcher.
So let’s say we’re looking at eight years and an option. That would cover his age-24 through age-31 season with an option for age-32. Seems fair and keeps the risk for the wrong side of 30 at a minimum. They aren’t going to be coming at him with the top figure he could earn through arbitration but rather somewhere near the middle ground. Let’s say the deal starts somewhere around that $40 million number for the six seasons. Personally, I’d probably cut a bit off that because there’s an inherent risk for the Royals in committing to a player for six full seasons when they’d be able to cut bait if anything went wrong in the middle. So let’s call it $36 million. Melendez is trading somewhere around $1 million per year for security.
Realmuto’s $23.1 million AAV is the current highest for any catcher in baseball and the highest ever (for now). I think it would be awfully difficult to give an extension to a player before his first year of service time and give him a record contract for those two free agent years at the end. However, that is a long way away. By then, maybe the record is $28 million or $33 million or maybe it’s still $23.1 million. To this point, four catchers have ever had an AAV of $20 million or higher. Two are current contracts, so maybe that’s shifting, but I don’t think it’ll change too terribly much.
I think setting those two free agent years at $20 million puts a bit more of the risk on the Royals than on Melendez, personally, but they cut a bit of a discount in the team control years. I’d probably be offering something like $18 million for the free agent years, knowing how few catchers have actually been paid big money and then set the option at something like $24 million with a $2 million buyout.
So that brings our number to eight years and $74 million, including the $2 million option. I think I like that a lot. Even if it takes an extra few million dollars, it’s still a potential huge bargain. The final two years of the deal come out in 2029 and 2030 when the team should theoretically have additional stadium revenue from the new park. So while they would be a little expensive, that’s something the team should be able to handle, even if Melendez only becomes a solid player. The issue here is that there is both the second-highest paid catcher in baseball history (by AAV) on the roster as well who will play and the fact that Melendez has struggled defensively.
Defensive stats are finicky for catchers and in a small sample, so neither gives us a ton, but Melendez has -9 defensive runs saved in just 210 innings behind the plate. That’s difficult to do. He’s looked uncomfortable blocking balls at times and his throws have sailed at times. Would that improve with regular playing time? I would say yes based on what I’ve seen of him in the minors, but I don’t see how he gets regular playing time back there with Perez on the roster.
So the math gets slightly trickier if he isn’t a catcher. You definitely don’t have to pay him like he’s Bryce Harper or Mike Trout on a contract extension before he has a year of service time, but the max goes up a little bit. So there might be a slight tax to pay on that, though I don’t know how much would be expected there. Maybe it brings the deal to $84-$88 million over the eight years, which, again, seems like a lot, but keep in mind how long this deal is going and what the financial landscape in the game is going to look like by then.
In the end, if they’re looking at an eight-year deal with an option, I think it will be somewhere between about $72 million and $80 million. Honestly, I think I’d do it. I’d maybe push to cut a year from that. That means you’re looking at seven years and $56 million or so, which I’d be all for also and might make a little more sense for both sides to get the Royals off some additional risk and for Melendez to hit free agency a little sooner. Either way, I think you can make a pretty strong argument that with Alec Zumwalt, Mike Tosar and Keoni DeRenne in Kansas City as the guys who helped get Melendez to the level he’s at now, this is the best place for him and I think if he recognizes that (and I think he does), it makes a lot of sense from both sides.