Bouncing Back

Rangers' second-round had a rough intro to pro ball

Tommy Mendonca has rarely failed during his baseball career. He was a three-year starter for Fresno State and was the College World Series' Most Outstanding Player during the Bulldogs' epic run at the title in 2008.  

Mendonca, 21, built off his strong 2008 season with an even better one for the Bulldogs in 2009, hitting .339/.447/.721 with 27 home runs. He only struck out 64 times, a year after setting the Division I record with 99 strikeouts. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound third basemen's calling card is his plus power but the fundamentals of his swing concerned scouts before this year's draft.

The Rangers selected Mendonca in the second round in June and quickly signed him for $587,700; he's their highest-drafted player to sign. A day later his professional career got going with short-season Spokane in the Northwest League.

"I was hoping it would be an easy start." Mendonca said.

It turned out to be anything but easy for Mendonca. He debuted as a pinch-hitter and struck out in his only at-bat. Matters only got worse  for Mendonca.

He reached his low point a few weeks later and found himself hitting a meager .196/.255/.353 after 51 pro at-bats with twice as many strikeouts (20) as hits (10). His notable power from college had disappeared; he had just four extra-base hits and one home run.

"Struggling is never fun. Everybody wants to be successful," Mendonca said while reflecting on his early struggles. "I was getting tired of nothing happening when I was doing what I used to always do. They've (Texas) worked with me on hitting. Everybody has put their two cents in and it's worked."

Time For A Change

Mendonca approached the Rangers player development staff and the Spokane coaching staff about making adjustments to his offensive game, and club officials were impressed by his desire to learn.

"For the first 75-100 at-bats we leave the player alone unless he comes to us for (help)," Rangers farm director Scott Servais said. "Tommy did that. He came to us. About 50 to 60 at-bats in (at Spokane) he said, 'I'm open. What do I need to do to get better?' He bought into our program. Ultimately, they have to want to learn before they key in."

The Rangers started working on Mendonca's swing. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound third baseman's calling card has always been his plus power, but the fundamentals of his swing concerned scouts before the draft.

"He's made good adjustments. He was very open to try new things," Servais said. "We have addressed the swing path issues. We have gotten him to keep the path of his bat to stay in the zone longer . . . It's really started paying off recently."

Mendonca's improvement has been as sudden as his early struggles. His batting average skyrocketed 108 points and he swatted six more home runs, including three in an early-August game at Salem-Keizer.

"I would do a lot of bad things (with my swing) before I made adjustments. I had the concept right but with a bad swing," said Mendonca, who hit .309/.361/.537 in 18 at-bats at Spokane before a late-season promotion to high Class A Bakersfield. "If I do it right it works now. I realize right from wrong now. I wasn't afraid to admit that I needed help when I needed it. It's a good thing to use your resources."

Early Benefits

Mendonca also said that the game has slowed down for him since he's made adjustments to his swing. While many picks held out until the last minute to squeeze extra dollars out of teams, Mendonca wanted to sign shortly after being picked. A college junior who was never drafted out of high school, Mendonca still saw the benefits of signing early.

"I would have started from scratch," Mendonca said, when asked about waiting until the Aug. 17 deadline to sign. "I feel like I have a leg up on a lot of people because I didn't hold out and signed."

Servais agrees with that assessment and does understand that life-changing money may slow the signing process. But he still thinks draft picks should to try avoid lost months of development over smaller amounts of money.

"I think kids make a huge mistake when they wait," the former big league catcher said. "I tell these kids, 'You make your money in the big leagues at the back end and not the front end.' Once Tommy was drafted we did think we could sign him early and get him playing. He's a baseball rat and loves to play."

Mendonca's defense is one aspect of the third baseman's game that the Rangers have been pleased with from the start.

"Playing defense hasn't been that hard of a transition," Mendonca said. "Defense is one of my strong points. Defense comes easy to me. I feel comfortable with my defense. In my mind, defense is still defense."

The Rangers and Mendonca agree that there are still adjustments to be made. Strikeouts are still an area of concern. He has continued to strike out at a healthy clip since his average began to rise and had 60 strikeouts.

"It's definitely something we are going to address," Servais said. "There are definitely more things we want to adjust to help his swing path. We've got to cut down the (strikeout) rate. There's no doubt about that."

Mendonca figures to spend the remainder of the year in Spokane and will be in line for full-season work in 2010. Servais says the Rangers are not afraid to push players through the system and cites 2008 first-round pick Justin Smoak and pitchers Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz as examples.

Smoak was in Triple-A while Holland and Feliz were contributing to the big league team in the middle of a playoff chase. Mendonca may not be too far behind.

"He will play every day in high A or low A," Servais said. "It's possible that he could get to Double-A next year. That's on him to get to Double-A.

"The players let us know (by their performance) when they are ready. They make that decision for us. Ninety-nine percent of the time players make that decision for us."