PHOENIX—Anthony Rendon didn’t hesitate when asked what he hopes to gain from the upcoming Arizona Fall League season, which begins today. The Nationals’ 2011 first-round pick could be expected to be sensitive about the succession of injuries that limited him in his final season at Rice and wiped out much of his debut minor league season this year.
Instead, the personable Houston native chuckled when asked his goals for the AFL, before answering, “Playing every game and trying to stay healthy.”
Rendon knows he needs to stay on the field in order to silence the skeptics as well as to make up for lost time.
“I had a rough first year. Obviously, things didn’t go well the way we planned,” Rendon continued. “But things happen for a reason so I’ll just come here and get my work in. This is actually my season.”
There’s no doubting Rendon’s ability at the plate when healthy. He was the Freshman of the Year in his first season at Rice and followed that by being named Player of the Year in 2010. A shoulder injury early in his final college season limited him to a DH role for all but a handful of games and sapped much of the power, as he hit only six home runs after combining for 46 in his first two college seasons.
Rendon, a modest 6-foot, 195-pounder, is able to make up for his relatively small size with extremely strong hands and excellent hand-eye coordination. It hasn’t taken long for the coaching staff with Rendon’s newest team, the AFL’s Salt River Rafters, to take notice.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s got some bat speed,” said Rafters hitting coach Ever Magallanes, who coaches in the White Sox organization during the regular season. “Strong, strong quick hands ‘¦ the ball just jumps off his bat ‘¦ He’s got a real natural fluid swing. It’s fun to watch his BP.”
While he’s always been a good natural hitter, Rendon doesn’t believe he was ready for professional baseball coming out of high school. The Braves drafted him in the 27th round in 2008 and made a strong push to sign him. Instead, Rendon wound up at Rice and he’s never regretted that decision.
“It’s a good thing I went to college because I was immature,” Rendon said, “so immature physically and mentally. Physically I was about 5-10 or 5-11. I was 160, 165 pounds. I wasn’t going to do any damage out here. I was just so young and immature; I wouldn’t have lasted out here because it’s a steady grind.”
While all eyes will be on him during the AFL season, Rendon isn’t feeling any added pressure.
“I’ll just go out here and play my game,” Rendon said. “You can’t play baseball with any pressure. You can’t play baseball nervous because that means you aren’t having fun.”
Sitting out much of this season due to a fractured left ankle wasn’t much fun for Rendon, who got hurt April 7 and didn’t return to play until July 19. Despite the time missed, he finished up at Double-A Harrisburg, going 11-for-68 (.162) with three solo homers. He also believes he learned some valuable lessons during his time on the sidelines this summer.
“Nothing’s promised to you, I can tell you that,” Rendon said. “It just put me in place. It just really humbles you a lot. I think I needed to go through that, too. Growing up and starting out at Rice, I was doing good and thought I had it made. But it was good to send me back.”
The other big question concerning Rendon’s future is where he’s going to play on the field. He was a third baseman throughout his career at Rice and in his first pro season. But the Nationals current third baseman, Ryan Zimmerman, is 28, the No. 3 hitter on a team that led the majors in victories and is signed through 2019.
Rendon will stay at third for now. He’s slated to be one of the Rafters regular third basemen and is looking forward to learning more of the intricacies of the position from Salt River manager Matt Williams, one of baseball’s better third sackers during his 17-year major league career.
“I know he was watching me and watching my footwork,” Rendon said about Williams during early workouts with the Rafters. “He really didn’t say too much yet so I guess that means I’m doing something right. You’re always going to have one of those days ‘¦ I’m going to mess up and he’s going to get on my butt. I’m going to need that, and I’ll use that to pick his brain a little bit more.”
Ultimately, Rendon could wind up changing positions and he’s open with that. He was initially a second baseman as a youth due to his small stature before eventually finishing his high school career at shortstop, and he played some second in 2011 for Rice. He’ll do anything at all to be able to get to the big leagues, especially with a Nationals franchise that looks to be one of the rising powers in the National League.
“We have a great team up there. If that day comes and they feel I can help the team in whatever way I can, I’m up for moving to any position,” Rendon said.
“I’ll play rover if I have to, just to make it to the bigs and to play at that level.”
• The AFL slate opens with Scottsdale playing at Phoenix while Surprise plays at Peoria in games that start at 12:35 local time. All six AFL teams have 32-game schedules, with the Rising Stars Game (essentially the AFL all-star event) on Nov. 3 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. The league’s one-game championship will be held Nov. 17 at Scottsdale Stadium.
• Williams, who will manage 2011 league champion Salt River, stands out among AFL managers for his big league exploits and for not being a minor league skipper. Phoenix manager Aaron Holbert (Braves), Peoria’s Dusty Wathan (Phillies) and Surprise’s Jason Wood (Rangers) have both big league experience and minor league managing experience. The other managers are Mesa’s Rodney Linares (Astros) and Scottsdale’s Carlos Mendoza (Yankees).