Instructs, Day Three: First impressions of a second-round third baseman.

The Rangers haven’t neglected third base on the farm.  Their primary AAA third baseman this season was Travis Metcalf, a former 11th-round pick, but AA third baseman Johnny Whittleman was a second-rounder, as was Low A third baseman Matt West, and rookie league third baseman Emmanuel Solis was a high-profile, high-dollar Dominican Republic sign — as was Johan Yan, since converted to the mound.

Third base, however, may be the thinnest position in the system right now, though that may not be all that unusual.  Rangers national crosschecker Kip **** will tell you third base has become the toughest position to find premium talent at in the high schools and colleges.  

Despite devoting second-round picks to the hot corner in 2005 (Whittleman) and 2007 (West), Texas went there again in 2009, tabbing Fresno State’s Tommy Mendonca, a player advertised as having a legitimate power bat and solid defense but some questions about his ability to make contact.  He had a very good debut season, hitting .309/.361/.537 in 188 Spokane at-bats with nine home runs, a total that was fifth in the Northwest League and would have been higher had he not been promoted to Bakersfield late in the season.

Reminiscent of Chris Davis’s debut season, also with Spokane, Mendonca struggled early, sitting at .196/.255/.353 over his first 51 pro at-bats.  But like Davis, he made some key adjustments and exploded, hitting .350/.390/.606 over his remaining 137 at-bats and prompting the two-level jump to the California League (where he hit .209/.261/.279 in 43 at-bats).  (His first taste of High A came on the road against the Modesto Nuts and Stockton Ports, both within 40 miles of his hometown of Turlock, California.)

When I got to the fields Friday morning and watched the Rangers take infield, Engel Beltre and Leury Garcia and Macumba stood out as they normally do, but so did Mendonca, whose glove and arm at the hot corner were impressive.  In fact, his throwing mechanics — the quick transfer, the strength, and the accuracy — looked a lot like Michael Young’s.  He’s built like Young as well, sturdy but without a menacing, Rolen-esque build.

At the plate, there was some length in Mendonca’s left-handed swing, but he showed tremendous, consistent opposite-field power, with the kind of backspin you want to see.  As for the contact issues, you just trust the player to make adjustments, and Mendonca is praised for his makeup and desire to work.  There’s a lot to like here.  I’m optimistic.

Catcher Vinny DeFazio is going to be a huge fan favorite everywhere he plays.  He looks like a UFC fighter and a 1940s catcher at the same time (with a name befitting either), is clearly an extremely vocal, hard-nosed leader, was constantly seeking coaches out with questions, and hit a 415-foot home run to straightaway center field in the ninth.  The New Jersey native (and son of Salvatore and Arline: you can’t make this stuff up) will coach one day, if he wants to, but in the meantime baseball people are convinced that the 2009 12th-rounder (.277/.415/.524 with 12 home runs in 231 at-bats between Spokane and Hickory this year), who caught Tommy Hunter at Alabama, is going to play this game for a long time.  The minute you see him play, you’ll be a fan for life.

Several of the pitchers DiFazio caught yesterday were impressive.  Righthander Daniel Gutierrez, acquired from Kansas City last month for catcher Manny Pina and outfielder Tim Smith, pitched an inning and a third as he readies himself for Arizona Fall League play.  He was free and easy with his delivery, and kept everything down, complementing a good fastball with a really good curve.  Righthander Francisco Mendoza, who nearly had to have a leg amputated after getting hit by a car a couple years ago, had a very good Dominican Summer League season (1.45 ERA, 30 hits and six walks in 37.1 innings, 38 strikeouts) and was sharp yesterday, retiring all four Mariners he faced.

Righthander Neil Ramirez faced three hitters.  All three struck out, two swinging through a four-seam fastball and one looking at a buckling full-count curveball.  Righthander Joe Wieland was even more impressive, getting a ground ball out and flyout to short left as he entered with one out in the seventh, and then striking out the side in the eighth.  By my count, he threw 21 pitches, 15 for strikes.  Righthander Johnny Gunter had a very good curve, getting a handful of called strikes with it in the ninth, including two third strikes.  

Mendonca, who hit once late in the game (he’s limited right now due to a forearm injury he suffered at the end of the season in Bakersfield), launched a shot to the opposite-field warning track in the eighth.  

Ruben Sierra Jr. has the leg hitch.  It’s not as pronounced as Dad’s was, but it’s there.

The Rangers’ outfielder Guillermo Pimentel had a better game than Seattle’s outfielder Guillermo Pimentel, the latter being the high-profile kid the Mariners signed for $2 million in July after spring reports that the Rangers had the inside track on him.  

Shortstop Jurickson Profar, center fielder Teodoro “Cafe” Martinez (son of former White Sox/Indians corner infielder Carlos Martinez — trivia: he hit the ball that bounced off Jose Canseco’s head for a home run in 1993), and second baseman Santiago Hill all made terrific defensive plays in the game.  

Baseball America named lefthander Martin Perez the number one prospect in the South Atlantic League (invoking the Johan Santana comparisons again, citing his build and his delivery and his fastball and his change), which follows the publication’s ranking of fellow lefthander Robbie Ross as the Northwest League’s top pitching prospect.  Hickory righthander Wilmer Font, according to BA, was in the discussion for the South Atlantic League Top 20 but didn’t make it.

That’s all I have time for this morning.  I’m off to see Mendonca’s Fresno State teammate, Tanner Scheppers, throw an early side, and then catch at least part of the Rangers’ game in Glendale against the White Sox, which will include Shawn Blackwell, Nick McBride, and Carlos Melo on the mound.  Looking forward to seeing all four of those high-ceiling righthanders.

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