Royals center fielder Kyle Isbel left yesterday’s game against the Orioles with a left hamstring strain, as noted by MLB.com’s Anne Rogers. The severity of Isbel’s strain isn’t currently known, but it seems likely he’ll miss at least some time with the injury.
Isbel, was a third round pick by the Royals in the 2018 draft. He made his debut in 2021 with a solid 28-game cup of coffee, slashing .276/.337/.434 in 83 plate appearances, good for a wRC+ of 108. Paired with his excellent center field defense, that slash line left him poised to potentially be an above average regular for Kansas City going forward. Unfortunately, Isbel has yet to deliver on that promise, as his bat has taken a turn for the worse since the start of the 2022 season. Over the past two seasons, Isbel has slashed just .210/.260/.343 in 374 plate appearances, good for a wRC+ of just 65.
Isbel’s hamstring injury may put any attempts to get things back on track on hold for the 26-year-old outfielder. Despite his meager offensive performance, however, the injury still figures to be a considerable blow to the Royals if Isbel misses time. His glove in center field is still among the best available, and the club is lacking in center field depth. Outfielder Drew Waters, who opened the 2023 campaign on the injured list due to an oblique strain, seemed to be nearing a return, but recently suffered a setback and has yet to head out for a rehab assignment, per Rogers. That likely leaves Jackie Bradley Jr. to draw starts in center in the event that Isbel misses time, though Bradley has been even worse on offense this year, clocking in at 70% worse than league average by measure of wRC+ in 51 plate appearances.
The 24-year-old Waters was a top prospect in the Braves organization for years after they selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft, but was traded to Kansas City midway through the 2022 season following the breakout of Braves center fielder Michael Harris II, which left Waters largely blocked in Atlanta. Waters ultimately got into 32 games for the Royals last year, and was impressive during that time, with a .240/.324/.479 slash line that was good for a 125 wRC+. Whenever Waters is ready to return, he seems likely to become a fixture of the club’s outfield mix, which currently includes Edward Olivares and Hunter Dozier in addition to Isbel and Bradley.
Also part of the outfield mix is MJ Melendez, the club’s second round pick in the 2017 draft and a former top prospect. Still just 24 years old, Melendez is primarily a catcher by trade, but has been blocked at the big league level by the presence of franchise catcher Salvador Perez. They split time behind the plate in 2022, with Melendez also seeing time in the outfield and both players often sliding into the DH slot to ensure both received sufficient playing time. That system worked fairly well last year, as Melendez ultimately got into 129 games for the Royals, slashing .217/.313/.393 for a roughly league average wRC+ of 99.
Melendez has caught just 68 2/3 innings so far this season, however, and manager Matt Quatraro has indicated that Melendez will be working exclusively in the outfield for the time being following the club’s decision to call up Freddy Fermin to act as the backup catcher. Per Quatraro, the decision was made to help Melendez focus on his offense, which has taken a turn for the worse so far in the 2023 campaign. In 118 plate appearances this season, Melendez has slashed just .200/.280/.371 with a well below average wRC+ of 76 and a concerning 33.9% strikeout rate. Melendez getting right at the plate would provide a huge boost to the Royals going forward, as the club ranks bottom five in the majors in terms of runs scored so far this season.
From where this team thought they’d be is miles apart from where they actually are. Offensively this team is terrible and they have handled Melendez particularly poorly, asking him to learn the OF at the big level while also serving as the backup Catcher.
It’s also amazing, yet sad to see JBJ just lose all of the ability to hit, he was never great at it to start with but at this point a kid from A ball could come up and out produce him…
JBJ was awesome in that 2018 ALCS.
Yes he was, and it’s been all down hill from there
It’s a shame, JBJ was my favorite when he came up. Also my age. But times change
Organizations that do what’s expedient and play their position players out of position seldom win anything and usually wind up ruining the player.
Melendez spent a lot of time learning the art of catching, and he’s very good at it. It’s nice that he’s athletic enough to play RF, but he’s standing around out there, not in the game. While the position beats players up physically, mentally they’re concentrating on every pitch. Sports and exercise are all about rhythm. Melendez’ rhythm is all messed up as the Royals wait for Salvy’s next injury to put Melendez back where he belongs. In the meantime his hitting is understandably suffering.
What really happened that’s not is the article is that Pasquantino and Pratto emerged as 1B’s, so they can’t play Salvy there part-time as they did in 2022.
Melendez is at least as good as half the starting catchers in MLB – and good starting catchers are at a premium. He’s just in a tough spot.