Royals not taking catching for granted as they groom M.J. Melendez, Sebastian Rivero

Royals young, talented catching prospects M.J. Melendez and Sebastian Rivero didn’t have to look over their shoulder to see the competition as they put together stellar individual seasons last year.

They stared their respective competition in the eye on a daily basis because they were competing with each other while also helping lead the Lexington Legends to the Low-A South Atlantic League championship and establishing themselves as two of the better catching prospects in the minors.

“We’ve definitely pushed each other,” Melendez said. “Whether it was talked about or not, we definitely saw what each other did on the field and we tried to do the same thing. We tried to push each other offensively and defensively to be the best that we can be.”

Melendez, who turned 20 in November, hit 19 home runs and registered 73 RBI as he posted a .251 batting average, .337 on-base percentage and a .470 slugging percentage, earning mid-season all-star honors. He played 111 games (73 at catcher), and he spent part of his offseason training with Royals Gold Glove starting catcher Salvador Perez and Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol at Florida International, where Melendez’s father is the baseball coach.

Baseball America ranked the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Melendez as the sixth-best prospect in the Royals farm system, while ranked him as the organization’s third-best prospect. He had the second-highest hard-hit rate of any player in the Royals farm system.

When Melendez wasn’t behind the plate, he often slid over to designated hitter. That’s when Rivero stepped into the catcher’s position (60 games at catcher, 77 overall).

Rivero, who also turned 20 in November, posted a slash line of .258/.301/.375 with seven home runs and 34 RBI while also earning mid-season all-star honors.

“I was happy when he did good because it helps the team to win,” said Rivero, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound Venezuela native. “If I can do better, that’s going to help the team too.”

Baseball America dubbed Rivero the best defensive prospect in the Royals farm system as well as the best in the South Atlantic League last season. ranked Rivero 28th among the organization’s top prospects.

While the two competed daily, they also took pride in one another’s success as well as that of their pitching staff.

“I think towards the end of the year as a team all the pitchers were trying to compete to not give up runs, not let anyone get on base,” Melendez said. “That was huge, just trying to limit as many runs as possible. I know when either of us had a game where it was a shutout, we were very proud of those moments.”

The Lexington pitching staff had both the seventh-best ERA and seventh-best WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) in the league last season, and they tied for the third-most shutouts (11).

“I think MJ and I did a pretty good job taking care of our pitchers,” Rivero said. “The connection was incredible. I think that’s the reason why we won the championship.”

The two figure to begin the season as teammates again for High-A Wilmington for another season of sharing catching duties and pushing each other on a daily basis.

Thus far, the Royals see no drawbacks from them sharing playing time at this stage in their development.

“When I see those two guys playing on the same team, to me you create challenges,” said minor-league catching coordinator J.C. Boscan. “You create one learning from the other. You see that. You see competition.

“Plus, their age is an age where they’re still developing. They’re pretty good, but we want them to be really good. To me and my eyes, I don’t see any type of issue with them being together at the age that they are. I think it’s a great learning process.”

Boscan spent parts of 19 professional seasons as a catcher. He’s excited by what he sees from the Royals young catching prospects, including Meibrys Viloria, who is ahead of Melendez and Rivero in his progression.

Boscan sees their mix of work ethic, professionalism and enthusiasm as something he can only describe as “special.”

Working with the pitching staff is always the first priority for catchers from the organization’s view. Boscan stresses that when evaluating the youngsters. Hitting will come, blocking will come, throwing will come, Boscan said. The focus on the pitching is always their primary job.

“Every time I went into a town to watch them play, it is impressive,” Boscan said. “When I say impressive, not only because the results are good. It’s the communication they create before the game and after the game with the pitching staff. Understanding each individual. Each pitching is different. The way they talk to him before the game starts. What is his best pitch. What is his second-best pitch. All that kind of stuff, we make sure that information is done between them.”

A growing stockpile?

Perez has established himself as one of the best all-around catchers in the majors. While Perez will miss this season as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery, he’s still under team control for two more years. Viloria figures to spend this year at Double-A or Triple-A now that Martin Maldonado has been added as a one-year stopgap starter.

“I’ve never had a crop of young catchers like this where you’ve got multiple,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Coming from Milwaukee, we never developed a catcher. I mean, (Jonathan) Lucroy came in the minor leagues right about the time I left, so I wasn’t there to develop him. We didn’t have anybody that we could develop. Nobody, I mean none. Zero. Zip.”

Yost has seen Perez come up through the system, and now he sees the potential for the organization to be able to look internally to find its next catcher and he gets excited. A former catcher himself, his voice gets louder and the pace of his speech quickens when talking about what he sees coming down the line.

“Now, you take a look around and you’ve got these kids coming behind him,” Yost said. “These kids are going to be OK. They’ve got good bodies. They’re athletic. They can throw. They can catch. They can receive. Both swing the bat OK.”

While the Royals appear loaded with potential options at the position, they’re not taking it for granted.

“There’s more good NFL quarterbacks than there are major-league catchers,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “It’s a tough, tough position to find.”

The Royals own the second overall pick in June’s First-Year Player Draft, and one of the top prospects in college baseball is Oregon State’s switch-hitting catcher Adley Rutschman. Oregon State spent part of February practicing and playing game in Surprise, Ariz., where the Royals make their spring training home.

Rutschman did attend at least one Royals workout during his time in town. When asked about Rutschman by a reporter, a sly grin spread across Moore’s face and he said there are a lot of prospects the Royals have been evaluating.

As far as whether or not the depth of catching in the system would preclude them selecting a catcher in the draft, Moore replied, “You always take the best available player in our game. There’s a lot that goes along with it. You don’t got right to the major leagues. If we were in the NFL or the NBA you could adopt that philosophy, but not in baseball. You just try to get the best player available.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.