Telis swinging his way to success

SURPRISE, Ariz. - At just 18-years-old, catcher Tomas Telis batted .330 with 12 doubles, five triples, and four home runs between the AZL Rangers and Spokane Indians this year. Lone Star Dugout looks at the prospect with a feature story and interview.

Tomas Telis entered the 2009 campaign as a skilled, but completely unproven talent who had never played a regular-season game in the United States.

He finished it as the top catching prospect in the Texas Rangers' system.

When the Venezuela native initially signed with the Rangers during the summer of 2007, he was strictly a shortstop. In fact, just about every professional organization saw him as a shortstop.

"I signed when I was 16 and I was a shortstop," Telis said through a translator. "The Yankees, St. Louis, Boston, Colorado, and a couple other teams liked me as a shortstop, but I ended up signing with Texas."

Shortly after signing, the Rangers sent Telis to their Fall Instructional League in Arizona, where he got his first taste of top-flight baseball in the United States.

It's also where he got his first taste behind the plate.

"When I came to instructs in 2007," he said, "Scott Servais told me, ‘You're not going to play short,' and he gave me a catcher's mitt and told me to throw the other one out."

Prior to signing with the Rangers, Telis had no idea he would be moving behind the plate. But Servais, a former Major League catcher himself, told the youngster he had the tools to become an excellent backstop.

"Scott Servais told me that I have the body of a catcher and that I have a better chance of moving up quicker if they moved me to that position," Telis explained. "They felt like I was going to fill out like a catcher."

As a 16-year-old, Telis was built more like a shortstop. Now, two years later, his body is filling out and he is beginning to look like a catcher. Telis says that, when he signed, he stood approximately 5-foot-7 and weighed 160 pounds. Now, he estimates himself at 5-foot-9 and between 190 or 200 pounds.

In addition to his good body, Telis has excellent tools behind the plate, flashing a strong arm and incredibly quick feet. The two qualities can make for a lightning-fast pop time—when he is mechanically sound. But that's something that takes time, particularly for those new to the art of catching.

"When I first started catching," he said, "I wasn't comfortable at all. But as time went on, I worked with all the coaches on receiving. That was my biggest thing. I didn't feel comfortable receiving pitches—like framing, blocking balls, and stuff like that. Over time, I have learned it and I'm doing better."

Moving behind the plate is never easy—particularly for a youngster like Telis. But he impressed his Dominican Summer League coaches by gunning down 20 of 64 [31.3%] attempted basestealers in 2008. Although that number dropped to just 19.4% in the more advanced Arizona League this summer, he showed improvement mechanically, cut his passed balls in half, and improved on his fielding percentage.

Although Telis' defensive progress is both encouraging and important, he is best known for his bat.

Possessing perhaps the system's best hand-eye coordination, Telis is blessed with the rare ability to hit just about any pitch on the barrel of the bat—regardless of where it is thrown.

In that regard, Telis' skills compare to freaks-of-natures like San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval or Los Angeles' Vladimir Guerrero.

In fact, according to the AZL Rangers coaching staff and team, Telis even hit a couple of balls in the dirt this season. He hit them into the outfield for base hits.

"I feel that I'm a contact hitter and with two strikes I'm protecting every inch of the plate," said Telis, with a smile. "Anything down, up, or whatever, I'm going to try to put the barrel on it."

And he generally does.

Telis posted an impressive .299 batting average with the DSL Rangers in 2008, and he hit .330 in 53 games between the rookie-level AZL Rangers and the short-season Spokane Indians this summer. Though he drew just four walks over that span, he struck out only 15 times.

The 18-year-old says he has been using the 'see ball, swing at ball' approach for as long as he can remember.

"Before I signed when I was younger, that was me growing up and playing little league ball," he said. "I was hitting anything—trying to hit anything and everything hard all over the field. It has just been natural to me. I like to swing at anything."

While Telis will likely always be an aggressive hitter, as he grows older, the Rangers believe he will learn his zone and become a bit more selective.

As if the prospect's raw abilities weren't rare enough, he is also an experienced—and advanced—switch hitter.

"I started playing when I was two, and I was natural right-handed," said Telis, who batted over .300 from both sides of the plate this season. "But I would see my brothers and friends hitting lefty, and I was always curious. So I just started hitting lefty and I guess I just learned how to do it over time."

Telis' stature doesn't scream imposing middle-of-the-order hitter, but he is beginning to develop some game power at a young age. During a late-season promotion to Spokane, he went 8-for-20 at the plate with one double and two home runs.

The catcher credits this season's increased power to his hard work last offseason.

"When I went back to the Dominican to work on catching," Telis said, "they told me that until I filled out and learned to catch, I wasn't going to come to the States. They felt I worked hard in the gym and I grew. I finally made it to the States."

If Telis stays on track, he will be playing baseball in the States for years to come. As for what was hopefully his first of many seasons in the U.S., Telis was clearly pleased with the end result.

"I felt awesome this year," he said. "I tried to focus on the little things of the game that the organization really wants me to get better at. I feel that by focusing on the little things, it has helped the big things. It has helped me in every other area."

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