Major adjustments paying off for Mendonca

SURPRISE, Ariz. - Second-round pick Tom Mendonca just finished up his first pro season, which saw him bat a cumulative .290 and finish with High-A Bakersfield. Lone Star Dugout spoke with the third baseman about some of the drastic changes and improvements he made over the summer.

In the MLB Draft, signing bonus negotiations can be a tough thing for early-round picks. Many talks drag all the way to the mid-August deadline, and most take at least a month or two before a deal is reached.

That wasn't about to be the case for Rangers' second-round pick Tom Mendonca. The former Fresno State standout signed just a few weeks after the June draft for a slot bonus of $587,700, and he got his professional career underway.

The extra time proved to be valuable for Mendonca, who had an extremely productive debut summer in professional ball. After getting off to a slow start that included a .196 batting average and 19 strikeouts over his first 14 games at short-season Spokane, Mendonca began to make some adjustments.

Tired of struggling, Mendonca went to the Rangers [as he explains in the following interview] and began to re-work his entire swing. Once Mendonca got accustomed to his new mechanics, he posted a .322/.388/.575 line in 87 August at-bats with the Indians.

The drastic improvement–along with Bakersfield's need for an extra power bat during their playoff run–got the 21-year-old a late-season promotion to High-A. In 11 regular-season games with the Blaze, Mendonca was 9-for-43 [.209] with three doubles.

The left-handed hitting third baseman doesn't come without his issues. Despite batting a cumulative .290 with an .832 OPS in his debut summer, Mendonca had just 10 walks versus 78 strikeouts in 60 games played. He has monstrous raw power and overall potential with the bat, but Mendonca swings and misses quite often and his plate discipline must improve.

In less than one-half season as a member of the Rangers' organization, the California native has proven that he's willing to work hard and listen to his coaches, and that's all the club can ask for at this point.

Mendonca finished up an impressive Fall Instructional League performance, as camp officially broke on Wednesday morning. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound prospect continued to show improvement as a hitter, and he appears likely to begin his first full season back with the Bakersfield Blaze when 2010 Spring Training breaks.

Jason Cole: I haven't talked about you since the draft, and I want to talk about your first pro season as a whole. First off, what were your thoughts on how you played in Spokane?

Tom Mendonca: It was good. It was a good leaning experience. I struggled at first and then got to learn how pro ball is–the system. It worked out. It was a blast. I had fun and learned a lot of new things. Now I get to carry it over to here.

Cole: I know Spokane is mostly younger and college guys. How close is that atmosphere in the clubhouse to what you experienced at Fresno State?

Mendonca: It was good. It was comfortable–it was comfortable at first, which is always good, and it stayed comfortable. It was a good transition to get used to pro ball because it was kind of the same atmosphere, but yet the pro ball atmosphere also.

Cole: You signed pretty early for an early pick. How important do you think it was to get into the system and get all those reps that you got this season?

Mendonca: It was great. You either sign early or sign late and see what happens. I think, in my mind, that it helped to sign early. I got a jump start on a few people who didn't sign early. I just got into it and got used to everything. Ultimately, I think it was a great thing to sign earlier.

Cole: As you mentioned, you got off to a slow start in Spokane and then turned it around in the last month or two. What was the difference? Did you make any adjustments?

Mendonca: Yes. We worked with everybody–Luis came down and Bo, our head guy, came down. A lot of people came down and we worked and fine-tuned with everybody in Spokane. The difference was that I got used to–I had to change my bad habits and I had to step forward and get used to the good habits. Now here I'm just working on those good habits. It is coming through. I'm happy with it.

Cole: What were some of those things that you changed?

Mendonca: I pretty much just broke down the whole swing. I figured out why you do this and why you don't do this, or why I was doing something. When I did it the correct way, I figured out how much better it is. Asking and getting the answer was huge. Just a lot of stuff.

Here, it has been a lot more stuff too. Just polishing stuff and learning more stuff. I just pretty much broke down the whole swing. How it used to be and how it is–the before and after–I guess you can say. But it's the good and bad. I broke down a lot of stuff. It's pretty much a whole new swing and stance. I don't know what to pick and choose, but the before and after–from college swing to professional swing–is pretty much what it is. From metal to wood.

Cole: I remember you telling me that you worked on a lot between your second-to-last and last college seasons. Compared to the changes you made then, how many changes were you making in pro ball? Was it a lot more?

Mendonca: A lot more. You don't rely on missing the ball and it still jumping off your bat, because it's a wood bat now. The changes are a lot. Once you figure out the changes and get used to them, it's always good.

Cole: Talk about your promotion to Bakersfield. You went straight into the playoff race there. When you got that promotion, what did they tell you and were you expecting to get moved up?

Mendonca: Everybody wants to get moved up. I went to Bakersfield, which was good. It was awesome because you get to see the higher level. There are changes you've got to make there, and the higher you go, the more changes you've got to make.

I think it was good. I started off really good, and then as it progressed, it caught up to me. That's when I knew I had to make more changes. We were in the playoffs–it was a short time to make a change, but I knew in my mind what needed to go on. It worked out.

Cole: Not many guys make that in-season jump from Spokane up to High-A ball. How much different was the game for you?

Mendonca: It was a big-time difference. The game went a little bit faster, pitching was better, umpires were better. It jumped–it was a jump. It was a promotion, and it was a good promotion. Like I said, you learn what to do, what not to do, and how much better it is there.

Cole: Looking back on that time in Bakersfield, how did you feel about it?

Mendonca: I feel great. I'm fortunate to have that jump at the end of the season to get that and a little taste of the playoffs too. That was huge. I'm just happy that happened. It was a good thing to happen and now I know what to do. The coaching was great there, too. They taught me more stuff. It was good to see better stuff and struggle, and now you know what to do to fix it so you don't struggle.

Cole: I know playing in the Cal League, you were basically back at home, at least near where you're from. What was that like?

Mendonca: It was great. The first series was in Modesto, and I live 15 minutes away from there, in a town called Turlock. It was really good to see the family right off-hand and get going and get that first hit out of the way. It got the butterflies out. It was fun. I was happy to be back in California, even though Washington had a little bit better weather. It was fun–I enjoyed the Cal League.

Cole: Did you see any Fresno State fans out there as well?

Mendonca: Yes, yes. All through there–all through the central valley. That's all Fresno State.

Cole: You mentioned that you kind of changed your whole swing. How much time did it take before you were actually up there feeling comfortable with it? How did it feel going up there with a brand new swing at a level you'd never played at before?

Mendonca: It felt good. We always want results right away, but you learn how it doesn't come right away. It took time, like you said. Towards the end of the season, I started doing good. There are times I was frustrated about it. I wanted it right then, right there, right now. I didn't know how I was missing pitches.

But it came towards the end of the season. That was another learning experience. It took pretty much the whole season and still, until right now, I'm still learning a lot more stuff. It's getting better. It's going to be my whole life. My whole career is going to be learning, so I've got to get used to it.

?Cole: Mike Boulanger has often told me that they don't like to make many changes with guys in their first year. Knowing that, did you go to the Rangers and say you wanted to make a change?

Mendonca: Yeah, I was tired of struggling. They pulled me aside and said some stuff. I said, ‘I'm tired of it. Let's get going.' You can't be afraid to ask questions. I'm glad I asked questions, and I'm glad they pulled me aside, too, and said, ‘Do you want to keep doing what you're doing, or do you want to do something different?' It's tough. You've got to swallow your pride, but you've gotta do it.

Cole: Talk about your defense real quick. Is there any difference between pro ball and college with balls coming off the wood and metal bats?

Mendonca: It's a little different. But in pro, you've got different positioning also. It's just something you've got to get used to. Other than that, defense is defense in my mind. There is some different stuff you do in pro, and it comes off a little bit different on the wood bats. Pretty much, you've gotta get used to that too, but it's just the same aspect of it.

Cole: Talk about instructs for a second. How do you feel it's going for you so far?

Mendonca: Instructs is great. Like I said, I'm learning everything–how our program does it and how it goes throughout the system. And I'm learning more stuff about offense, more stuff about defense and baserunning. It has been a great experience. I'm glad to further my knowledge of baseball.

Cole: I've noticed it's a nice atmosphere out here. It seems a little more relaxed than the regular season, no?

Mendonca: Yeah. It's a little more hands-on, also. Relaxed and hands-on. They let you play, but they also teach you, too. Which is, for some people great, and for some people it's not. But it is a great atmosphere, and we're getting a lot of stuff done together.

Cole: Your expectations going into pro ball–how close is this to what you were expecting?

Mendonca: Everybody wants to move on up in pro ball. Everybody expects to get to the big leagues in the shortest amount of time. I'm just glad I'm playing baseball. Yeah, I want to move up. There are goals and everything. But I also realize that there are people ahead of you, there is stuff that people need to work on–that I need to work on. It's a job, and you've got to get better every day. I'm happy with what happened this year and how this is going right now.

Cole: Have you talked to the Rangers at all about next season yet? Are you most likely going to start back in Bakersfield next year?

Mendonca: No, we'll see how Spring Training goes and how this goes. That'll determine where it goes from there. Hopefully Bakersfield, Hickory, Spokane–it's all good as long as I get to play.

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