KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As a young ballplayer working to break into the lineup on an everyday basis in the 1970s, Kansas City Royals great John Wathan always found it useful to carry gloves for positions other than the one for which he primarily was drafted — catcher.
No matter if it was taking infield using a first baseman's mitt or shagging fly balls wearing an outfielder's glove, Wathan figured that being flexible and emphasizing his own versatility would benefit the team in the short term and add value to his own career in the long run. It didn't matter that he had been a first-round pick; Wathan never stopped trying to prove himself.
Five decades later, as a part-time minor-league coach in spring training and an adviser to the Royals front office, Wathan sees a parallel in rookie MJ Melendez, a highly regarded catching prospect who has made himself available to play other positions, notably right field, because of the presence behind the plate of seven-time All-Star Salvador Perez.
"MJ has embraced the idea that he can play a lot more doing it this way," Wathan recently told Bally Sports in a phone conversation. "He's athletic enough to do it."
Coming into action this week, Melendez was batting .231/.331/.404 with six home runs in 156 at-bats, which includes seven games in the outfield, 12 as a designated hitter and 27 behind the plate. Melendez's pregame preparation ritual has been busy, jam-packed with drills at multiple stations. The 23-year-old does full rounds of batting practice like anyone else typically in the starting lineup. He also catches pitchers doing side sessions in the bullpen. He does extra work with coaches and machines behind the plate when the batting cage is empty. And he goes to the outfield to learn how to play it in the major leagues.
"It can definitely get a little bit busy at times," Melendez said. "But you know, for me, it's important to stay sharp no matter where they put me."
A higher concentration of games as a catcher are coming. Last Friday, the Royals announced that Perez had undergone surgery on his left thumb to repair a torn UCL, putting him out of action for several weeks but not necessarily for the rest of the 2022 season. Melendez figures to get most of the opportunities behind the plate in the interim. And even so, because Perez is under contract through at least 2025, the Royals' centerpiece almost certainly hasn't seen the last of his time as a starting catcher with K.C. in the coming seasons. Melendez has been wise to stay on his toes figuratively, and literally, to prepare himself at other spots.
"Any position where I'm out there playing the game I love is fun for me," Melendez said. "I don't think there's a position the Royals could put me in where I didn't like it. They could put me anywhere, even shortstop — but with Bobby (Witt) out there, we're probably set."
As Wathan could tell him, you never know where a major-league career might take you.
"Even before coming to the Royals, going back to the University of San Diego, and even high school, I always told the coaches that it didn't matter where — I just wanted to play," Wathan said. "And coming up, there always seemed to be other players on the team who could only play catcher. So that's where they played. And there always seemed to be other players regarded as better prospects than I was. I felt like I had to be as versatile as I could be in order to get in the lineup."
Wathan's versatility around the diamond helped on all fronts during his unique 10-year MLB career. When Whitey Herzog was the Royals manager, Wathan could shift to first base instead of John Mayberry. Later with Jim Frey managing and Willie Aikens out of the lineup, Wathan could fill in again. When Darrell Porter started at catcher, Wathan could move to the outfield. He went to left when Willie Wilson played center because Amos Otis couldn't, or to right because Clint Hurdle got hurt.
Wathan played nearly 4,500 career innings behind the plate from 1976 to '85, but during the 1980 season when the Royals went to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, Wathan played 35 games in the outfield. The stakes were pretty high.
Kansas City isn’t on the cusp of the World Series with Melendez, at least not yet, but the work he's doing now will set the foundation of his entire career and, hopefully for the Royals, another winning era. General manager J.J. Picollo said he appreciates Melendez being willing to put himself out there.
"It speaks volumes about his character and the kind of teammate MJ is," Picollo said. "You have to have a player who is open-minded to doing it, and those really can be rarer than you think."
In this era of seemingly unending analytical data, 14-person pitching staffs and constant transactions, a catcher's job is already busy enough trying to stay updated with the personnel on his own roster. Wathan believes it's tougher for contemporary catchers than ones of his era. For that reason, Melendez tries to simplify his tasks.
"There's so much data these days, just about our own pitchers and the hitters that we face, that I try to hone in on knowing what our pitchers' strengths are, and working with them in that way," Melendez said.
Royals pitchers appreciate the amount of work that Melendez has on his plate.
"It's really impressive, especially for how young he is and being new to all this, and being new to all this information," right-hander Brad Keller said. "I think it speaks to his work ethic, and who he is as a person, to be able to bounce back and forth like that between positions. He's willing to do whatever it takes to help us win."
Wathan, who compiles reports on minor leaguers for the front office but also watches the major-league Royals closely, has been impressed with Melendez’s performance at the plate and on defense, no matter the position shifting he does.
"He's made some great plays in the outfield already," Wathan said. "In Omaha (at Triple-A) and in the time I've seen him in the big leagues. He's got the ability, with his athleticism, and the want-to to play all over. The confidence he has in himself shows."
Learning to play the outfield with a home ballpark like Kauffman Stadium, with its uniquely challenging dimensions, nuances and quirks, takes extra reps. It isn't as treacherous and tricky as it was in Wathan's day, when the turf was artificial and mistakes could be more costly, but the outfield remains one of the majors’ biggest spaces, punctuated by tight curves and a notable lack of foul ground.
Melendez says teammates Kyle Isbel and Michael A. Taylor have been particularly helpful in training him to play right. Isbel helps with teaching the unusual geometry of the angles the right fielder has to manage. Melendez realizes he is not in this alone.
"The key is like with anything else," Melendez said. "It's about communicating with the other guys on the field and the dugout."
Because Perez will be sidelined for a while, most of Melendez's prep work going forward will be back behind the plate.
"We definitely believe in his abilities as a catcher," Picollo said. "But it's also great to know that he's available to us at another position if we need it."