Rangers hoping Mendonca can make switch
Third baseman trying to pull off conversion to catcher
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers don't know yet if Tommy Mendonca will be able to switch from third base to catcher. But bench coach Jackie Moore, a former catcher who has been in professional baseball for over a half-century, pointed out one thing."That bat is going to give him a lot of chances," Moore said. It is a chance worth taking in an organization where nobody is quite sure what will happen at the catching position in the next few years. The two catchers at the Major League level are free agents after this season and the best catching prospects in the organization are still in the lower levels of the farm system. So the Rangers, who have never been afraid of asking players to switch positions, approached Mendonca this offseason and asked him to try catching. The Rangers, with Adrian Beltre at the big league level and loaded with prospects at third base in the system, need catchers. Mendonca sized up the situation and agreed. It was a convergence of interests and it might be huge for the Rangers if the former College World Series hero from Fresno State can pull it off. "It's getting there," Mendonca said. "I think I can do it. I'm sure going to give it a try."
That's why he was out on Nolan Ryan Field early Monday morning. He was behind the plate catching both Neftali Feliz and Mark Lowe as they threw live batting practice. On one pitch, Feliz bounced a slider in the dirt and Mendonca smoothly backhanded it as if he had been catching all his life."It has been better than expected," Mendonca said. "Some of this stuff has come quickly. It's a matter of time but it's not all there. I like it. I can't say I don't like it." There aren't many teams who wouldn't like a catching prospect who bats left-handed and hit 25 home runs with 87 RBIs at Double-A Frisco. Even if Mendonca ends up no more than a platoon partner or utility player, left-handed-hitting catchers with power are rare in baseball. "He's doing well," manager Ron Washington said. "He's working his tail off. The kid can hit. We're going to get him in some games this spring. He's going to make some mistakes but because of his attitude, he's going to get it." There is much work to do. The former third baseman has a plus arm, but still needs to learn proper footwork, he needs to learn his pitchers and he needs to learn how to call pitches. That's just the top of the list... "There is a whole lot more going behind the plate than at third base," Moore said. "It will be a slow process but it will be a good process. It's like any position, you play it until you get confident. It's not easy but you keep doing until you get better." The Rangers have Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba sharing the catching duties at the Major League level. But, after Taylor Teagarden was traded to Baltimore and Kevin Cash became a scout, they have a void of catching at the upper level of the farm system. Right now, the Rangers aren't sure what they'll do if either Napoli or Torrealba go down with an injury. Luis Martinez, who hit .323 at Triple-A last year and .203 in 22 big league games, was acquired from the Padres in the offseason and is probably next in line. The Rangers also signed Dusty Brown to a Minor League contract. He spent 10 seasons in the Red Sox organization, last year with the Pirates and has played in just 24 games at the Major League level. Chris Robinson, who spent the past three seasons at Triple-A in the Cubs' organization and is known mainly for his ability to work with pitchers, is also in camp. "We'll find somebody, I promise you," Washington said. Jose Felix appeared to be a rising defensive star in the Rangers' system, but he hit just .228 with a .263 on-base percentage and a .297 slugging percentage at Double-A Frisco last year. Tomas Tellis, 20, has significant offensive potential, but missed most of 2009 because of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. The Rangers love Jorge Alfaro, who they signed two years ago out of Colombia. He is just 18 and still made the Class A Northwest League All-Star team last season after hitting .300 with a .481 slugging percentage. But he is still at least two to three years away as is Kelly Deglan, the 22nd overall pick of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft out of Canada. Deglan, 19, played at Class A Hickory last year. He and Tellis split the duties there while Zach Zaneski and Vincent DiFazio, a couple of former college catchers respected for their ability to work with pitchers, split time at Class A Myrtle Beach. Mendonca could fill the void if he takes to the position although the Rangers aren't expecting him to be an option this summer if there is an injury to Napoli or Torrealba. They wouldn't rule it out but there is still much work to do and still much to learn. "Pitching calling, sequencing, getting to know the hitters, that all will be tough," Mendonca said. "Blocking was hard but that's coming. Mainly it's pitch-calling and working with pitchers. It's all new but the newness of it is fun. It's the challenge that's fun. If it doesn't work out, I can always move back to third base. But my focus and dedication is on catching."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.