Texas Rangers Prospect Tommy Mendonca Turning Heads in Texas League
A .283 batting average with 24 homers and 86 RBIs with games still remaining in your first Double-A season is a good way to start turning some heads around the big league club and the national baseball audience as a whole.
Tommy Mendonca, currently playing for the Texas Rangers’ Double-A affiliate, the Frisco Roughriders, has spent the 2011 season doing just that.
Following a forgettable 2010 season with the Bakersfield Blaze in which he hit just .248 with 10 homers and 126 strikeouts ,Mendonca has rebounded this season and shown the skill-set that he displayed while leading the Fresno State Bulldogs to the 2008 College World Series, securing his status as a second-round draft pick in 2009.
The hard work that he put in during this past offseason and throughout this year to raise his stock and keep him atop the prospect depth charts in the Rangers’ organization is a lesson he learned long before draft-day 2009, though.
The Road to the Minor Leagues
Mendonca’s uncle, Robert Mendonca, played briefly in the Philadelphia Phillies organization back in 1989, and served as a baseball mentor and coach to Tommy as he played high school ball for Turlock High School in California’s San Joaquin county.
“He was a tough coach,” Mendonca says. “A little bit tougher on me and my brother when we went through him then the other kids. He always wanted us to do well.”
Tommy credits his uncle with preparing him for baseball at the college level, where he excelled.
During his time at Fresno State, he would wind up setting the university home run record (57), lead the team to the College World Series and earn the honor of being named the College World Series MVP and the Western Athletic League (WAC) Player of the Year.
During the College World Series, Tommy would put on a defensive display that would awe the opposition as well as draw high praise and Hall of Fame comparisons from within the baseball world.
His slick fielding during the College World Series would earn him comparisons to 16-time Gold Glove winner Brooks Robinson, a distinction that flatters Mendonca, although he doesn’t necessarily see himself in that same light.
“That’s an honor. That’s a really big honor to be [compared] with him,” says Mendonca. “I didn’t see myself like that [though], still don’t see myself like that.”
Yet, he readily acknowledges that defense is a big part of his game.
“It’s weird; I might be one of those only guys that enjoy defense,” he says. “I enjoy it a lot. Defense is fun for me, I make it a little game.”
“I take pride in it,” he adds emphatically.
While Brooks Robinson was a little before his time, blessed by living within a close proximity to another one of his idols, he was able to watch and mold his game after another defensive standout while growing up.
“I’m an A’s fan,” acknowledges Mendonca, “so I idolized Eric Chavez a lot. He was my favorite third baseman, my second favorite player of all-time.”
(His favorite player of all-time is Ty Cobb, because he was a player who came from nothing and made something out of himself. Oh, and he happened to be pretty good too.)
Although he grew up watching a six-time Gold Glove winner in Chavez, the credit to his defensive excellence belongs to his uncle he says.
“I started getting good at defense going back to my uncle,” Tommy says. “He had a barn where he lived out in the back with very low lighting. He would hit me ground balls. I think that was one of the biggest things to help me [with my] defense.”
The preparation and practice behind the barn in Turlock would pave the way for his college success and build the foundation for minor league success.
“[My uncle] really readied me for the college atmosphere, and my college coach readied me for the minor league atmosphere,” Mendonca says, making sure that we also know his college coach, Mike Batesole, had an equal impact on his early successes.
“It was kinda like a chain effect, my uncle had an effect on both college and the minor leagues and my coach had an effect on the minor leagues.”
Being Drafted High and Early Success Lead to Ability to Work Through Failures
Following his impressive college career, Tommy was drafted in the second round of the 2009 MLB draft and quickly began his professional career on the a bright note.
“I was just hoping to get drafted to be honest,” Mendonca admits. “ I’m just lucky that a team was interested in me, and blessed to get picked that high.”
He played in 49 games for the Texas’ Low-A affiliate, the Spokane Indians, in which he batted .309 with nine homers and 26 RBIs before being promoted to the High-A Bakersfield Blaze.
His early success, combined with his college experience, helped him through the struggles he would face in his final 11 games of 2009 with the Blaze and his disappointing 2010 season.
“Coming off a strong year and then getting drafted obviously helped a lot,” Mendonca said of his early success in the minor leagues.
“It did further me, knowing that I was getting better and better through each year. Then going into the minor leagues it prepared me to have success and push through the failure part,” he adds in reference to his experience in Bakersfield.
“You’re going to have failure, trying to get back to the success part.”
Bouncing Back in 2011
The results he has seen this season reaffirm Tommy’s belief that working through the failures is a key to eventual success in the Major Leagues.
He is quick to offer credit to his coaching staff for helping him bounce back from a tough 2010 campaign.
“A lot of credit goes to our hitting coaches in High-A, Luis Ortiz and Brent Brown here [in Double-A], and Steve Buechele have been a very big help on my offense and defense,” offers Mendonca.
Again, the hard work has shown in the box-scores. His .283 average is a whole 35 points higher than last year, and his power has returned, hitting 14 more homers in less games played so far.
His performance earned him player-of-the-week honors for the week of June 20 as well as the distinction of Texas League Mid-Season All-Star.
One key to his game that scouts would still like to see him improve on is his strikeout total, something that Mendonca is aware of and putting effort into.
Regarding the work he still wants to put in down the stretch this year, Tommy says he’d ”like to polish up on everything, mainly offensively cutting down on those strikeouts. [I’m] trying to do my job at it this year, and hopefully keep improving.” He pauses briefly before continuing , “I will… just keep working at it.”
The key to making it to the big leagues, as Mendonca is already aware, is the ability to make adjustments as the opposition makes adjustments to him.
It took him an entire year in 2010 to learn this lesson, but now that he has, the path ahead is all the more promising.
“[I’m] taking in a lot of things,” Mendonca says of the lessons he has learned through his early minor league experiences.
“Some things are going to work for me; some things aren’t. Picking and choosing the ones that I’m comfortable with and can work and have seen success come from those habits,” he theorizes, “sticking with those, and once that one is not working anymore, pick up a new one, and vice-versa between the two.”
“That is the main thing,” says Tommy, “learn from your mistake.”
The Road Ahead
Time will tell if Mendonca can continue to make the adjustments as he progresses even further up the minor league ladder to Round Rock and the Triple-A level, most likely to begin next season.
The future is bright for the former Fresno State slugger, though.
Projections have always had him listed as plus-defender who is expected to stick at the hot-corner with above-average power that is also expected to carry over to the major league level.
The biggest question, which represents a good problem for the Rangers to have, is when Mendonca will earn his shot at the big league level, and whether it will be with their organization.
He is currently blocked by Adrian Beltre, who is signed through 2015.
This season he drew interest from the Chicago White Sox before the July 31 trade deadline, but ultimately was not dealt and remains with the Texas Rangers.
He could become a more valuable trade-chip next season at Triple-A if the Rangers decide to stick with Adrian Beltre for the duration of his contract, or fellow third base prospect Mike Olt, instead of giving Mendonca a shot at the roster spot.
Asked if he thinks about when he might be given the opportunity to make his Major League debut thanks to the player ahead of him, Mendonca takes the high road and chooses to focus on his present, not his future.
Regarding his future with the Rangers, Mendonca says that all he can do is his “best, and try to move up. Whether it’s going to happen this year, and if it doesn’t I’m fine with it.”
“I’m learning to do things,” he says, “just trying to get to the ultimate goal of the big leagues.”
“Just trying to get there, one step at a time, and I take it one day at a time. I try not to look too far forward.”
“I’d lie to you to say I don’t [think about who’s in front of me], but yeah, of course I do,” Tommy finally acknowledges.
“You see who’s in front of you,” he adds, “but it doesn’t affect me now. It might affect the long term, but right now, I’m in double-A. I’m playing for the Frisco Rough Riders. That’s all I’m worried about, trying to get a championship.”
He already possessed the tools necessary for success at any level of this game.
And with that mentality, that of a team leader who puts his team first and puts the team accomplishment ahead of his own glory while continuing to work to make himself better in the process, you can see why Tommy Mendonca has a bright future ahead of him and a long career in the Major Leagues to look forward to.