Name: Tom Mendonca
DOB: April 12, 1988
Acquired: 2009 Amateur Draft, 2nd round
The feature portion of this article is from a January 12, 2012, story, a few days after the Rangers announced Mendonca's move to catcher.
When Tom Mendonca earned Most Outstanding Player honors at the 2008 College World Series, his defense at third base stood out just as much as––if not more than––his power display as Fresno State made its improbable national championship run. With Double-A Frisco last season, he flashed at least solid-average skills at the hot corner due to his decent range, good hands and plus arm strength.
But the Rangers have Gold Glove winner Adrian Beltre at third base, and he's under contract through at least the 2015 season. The club also has a wealth of promising hot corner prospects like Mike Olt and Christian Villanueva.
Several Rangers beat reporters––such as MLB.com's T.R. Sullivan––have recently announced that the club will be giving Olt a look at first base this spring, looking to find a spot for his powerful bat.
Olt isn't the only third base prospect who will be trying a new position this spring. Mendonca is making an even bigger adjustment––he's moving off the hot corner completely and going behind the plate.
A few Rangers coaches and player development staff members recently hosted Mendonca in Arlington to give him something of a crash course on catching. While the initial plan was to move him behind the plate on a part-time basis, Mendonca took to catching quicker than expected and the club made it a permanent move.
The 23-year-old is already in Arizona and preparing for spring training, working behind the plate with former major league backstop and Rangers roving catching instructor Hector Ortiz. Having never caught in the past, Mendonca is having to completely learn the position, and it may take some time for him to pick up its many nuances.
But as Mendonca explains in the following interview, he was not only plenty receptive to the move, but he's also quite happy about it. While the organization is stocked with third basemen from top to bottom, most of the catching talent currently resides in the system's lower levels. He has the tools––including plus arm strength––to play well behind the plate, but only time will tell if he can become a passable defender.
The lefty hitter is coming off a promising season at Double-A Frisco in which he posted a .278/.335/.492 slash line with 25 home runs in 125 contests. He was a bit of a riddle to scouts in 2011, showing plus power to all fields but also scuffling in the second half and striking out in 28.8 percent of his plate appearances.
The strikeout rate certainly raises some questions about whether Mendonca can continue his offensive success in the major leagues. But if he develops into a solid defender behind the plate, the offensive threshold won't be as high as it was at third base, and it makes his power all the more intriguing.
Lone Star Dugout recently caught up with Mendonca, who has become one of the Rangers system's more interesting storylines going into the 2012 campaign.
Jason Cole: Obviously the news surrounding you right now is your transition from third base to catcher. Can you give me your overall thoughts on the switch?
Tom Mendonca: It came as a surprise, but it's a good switch. Everybody knows that Adrian Beltre is at third base, and he's there for four more years or so. And it's going to be a tough spot to get to with Texas, so I have to open up the options. Catching came up, and that's a good spot right now. It's going to be for the best.
Cole: Had you ever caught at any point in your life before this?
Mendonca: No. I'd maybe caught a little league game just for fun, but no, I've never caught.
Cole: Where did the idea come from and how were you approached with it?
Mendonca: I just got a phone call asking my thoughts about it. I said, ‘Sure, let's try it out.' And it has been going great so far.
Cole: When did that happen?
Mendonca: It was either before or right after Thanksgiving.
Cole: You also went out to Arlington for a little bit to get sort of a crash course on catching. Can you talk about that?
Mendonca: It was just a two-day thing. I was with Mike Micucci and Jake Krug and Steve Buechele. I just went out there and got a little crash course of it. They gave me the basics of setups and footwork and stuff. Then, from there, I went to Arizona for two weeks before Christmas, then back home for the holidays and the new year, and now I'm back out here in Arizona.
Cole: And I assume you're working with Hector Ortiz in Arizona.
Cole: Ortiz is a former big league catcher himself, and he's now the roving catching instructor for the Rangers' minor league system. What kind of things have you been able to pick up from him so far?
Mendonca: Everything. Like I said, it's new, so he has taught me pretty much everything. He's a great coach and a great teacher. Everything he says, I've been picking up on and taking. He has helped me out a lot. Going from the first two days up until now, I feel like, in my mind, it has been great progress.
Cole: At this point, are you out there every day working on catching in general?
Mendonca: Yeah, catching and working out and everything.
Cole: What has been the most difficult part of moving behind the plate for you so far? What aspect has been the toughest to pick up?
Mendonca: Knowing the different stances or squats or whatever you want to call them. That was the toughest part. I didn't realize there were two or three different stances involved in it. And that has been the toughest part––figuring out my happy medium on all those.
Cole: You've always had the plus arm strength at third base, but how much different is the throwing behind the plate from what you were used to at third? Have you had to alter the arm slot?
Mendonca: Yeah, you could say so. I really had a good arm slot––the arm slot for catching––at third base just naturally. So that part hasn't been too tough.
Cole: Once spring training begins, how much are you looking forward to getting back there and competing in games?
Mendonca: It's going to be exciting. It's going to be new. Like anything, I'm anxious to do it. But first I need to get my guidelines and boundaries in. I need to just keep plugging away on it.
Cole: I also want to talk about your 2011 season in Frisco. I think it's safe to call it a successful season after you scuffled the prior year in Bakersfield. What did you come away with last year?
Mendonca: Like you said, it was a successful season. It was just a positive for me, knowing that I still could produce rather than in Bakersfield, which was a really disappointing season. But it was another stride forward just to continue and know that I can still do it. And I can do it into this upcoming season.
Cole: What part of your offensive game did you feel had progressed the most last year?
Mendonca: All around. I mean, the batting average went up, the RBIs, the runs, the on-base percentage––everything went up, which was a good thing. There wasn't one aspect that was better than the other. I was just plugging away every day and not taking it for granted.
Cole: Did you make any major mechanical adjustments that led to the success last year? Or did you feel it was mostly mental and gaining confidence?
Mendonca: I think it was more mental. Brant Brown and Steve Buechele helped me out a lot, too. But it was more mental. It wasn't much physical but more mental. I was learning more about the game than what I knew.
Cole: After a dominant first half of the season, you did have your share of struggles in the second half. What did you feel was the difference?
Mendonca: I had a lot of off-the-field related incidents––some personal incidents that happened where I had to go home. My mind kind of wandered there. I tried pushing through it and making the best out of it.
Cole: You're already in Surprise preparing for spring training and the 2012 season. Have you begun to think about this upcoming season and what you'd like to accomplish?
Mendonca: No. Right now, I just want to get this catching down. Hopefully my career takes off with catching now. I want to try to get to the highest point in catching. I just really want to get the basics down and then start going from there.
Also See: Lone Star Dugout Q&A: Brant Brown (April 26, 2011)
Mendonca responding to Double-A challenge (May 17, 2011)
Rangers All-Prospect Teams (November 8, 2011)
Rangers announce eight non-roster invitees (January 10, 2012)
Mendonca receptive to position switch (January 12, 2012)
Batting and Power: Coming out of Fresno State, Mendonca was known for two things offensively––plus power to all fields and a lot of strikeouts. He lived up to that in Double-A last season, where he socked 25 home runs in 125 contests but also whiffed 160 times. There's no doubt that Mendonca will have to cut down on the swings and misses to ensure success at the upper levels, but he'll likely never hit for a high average. A bit of a long load in Mendonca's swing makes it difficult for him to catch up to plus velocity with consistency, but when he makes contact, he can hit it a long way. He will need to improve his pitch recognition and selection as he continues to progress. Most of Mendonca's offensive value should come in his raw strength and power, of which he has plenty. The left-handed slugger can hit balls out to any part of the park––a good portion of his round-trippers last season were to the opposite field.
Base Running and Speed: Mendonca has attempted seven steals in 305 career games over three seasons, and he's been successful just twice. In other words, he isn't ever going to be much of a threat on the base paths. He's a definite below-average runner from home to first but can hit a second gear once he gets momentum going around the bases.
Defense: At this point, there isn't much to say about Mendonca's defense behind the plate. It'll likely be at least a year before his defensive skills as a catcher can be accurately judged. The Rangers were impressed with how he took to the position while getting a crash-course on catching in Arlington earlier this offseason, but he's never played behind the plate before and is starting from scratch. Mendonca has some of the tools necessary to become a good defensive backstop, including a thick body with good agility and above-average arm strength.
Projection: Mendonca's move to catcher should not only help his career, but it also lets the Rangers fill a void in upper-level catching prospects. Most of the organization's promising backstops reside in the lower levels and are at least a few years away from the majors. The club also has Adrian Beltre––in addition to top prospects Mike Olt and Christian Villanueva––at the hot corner.
The 23-year-old's iffy hit tool was likely to keep him from seeing significant action at third base with the Rangers. As a catcher, Mendonca's offensive threshold will be lowered and his plus power will be more of a bonus if he can develop into a solid defender behind the plate. He could ultimately become low-average, plus-power, high-strikeout backup or even start down the line, but that'll all be determined by how good he becomes defensively. And since he has yet to even catch in a game thus far, it's impossible to project what will happen.
2012 Outlook: Although he's currently in major league camp, Mendonca may not see much ‘A' game action behind the plate because he has yet to catch in a professional game. His bat is ready for Triple-A, but his new position puts some doubt into exactly where he'll break camp. The organization could have Mendonca begin the year by working in the low-pressure environment of extended spring training. He could also start at a lower level––perhaps Double-A Frisco. Regardless, once the third baseman-turned-catcher gets some experience under his belt, he should play a significant portion of his games with Round Rock in 2012.
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