Ted Leavengood: The third No. 1 truly arrives

Anthony Rendon leapt high into the air to snare a line drive during Sunday’s game. It was not until the slow motion replay was available that the athletic nature of the play could be appreciated. Rendon was easily three feet or more off the ground when the ball settled into his outstretched mitt. His standing leap was one that most basketball players would covet.

It was the kind of play that Danny Espinosa has been making routinely at second base for the past three seasons. When Rendon made the dead-on relay throw to third base later in the game, it was once again eerily reminiscent of the great defense that Espinosa has been flashing. Although Rendon made an error as well, it was easy to see him moving more fluidly at second with time.

When Rendon was drafted in 2011, Jim Callis of Baseball America gushed over the Nationals’ good fortune, saying that Washington had gotten the best player in the amateur draft for three years in a row. First Stephen Strasburg, then Bryce Harper and finally Rendon had been rated as the best overall draft prospect starting in 2009. The Nationals signed all three and now each one has made his way to the majors, where they should be playing for years to come.

Rendon was not as sure a thing as Strasburg or Harper. Although he was ranked No. 1 in his draft class, he was not touted as a once-in-a-generation prospect. Compounding that were the injuries that dropped him to Washington with the sixth overall pick in 2011. Yet Rendon’s overall skill level was not affected by his ankle injuries, nor was he deemed to be injury prone.

Quite the contrary, scouts continued to rave about him. “His bat speed and ability to barrel balls give Rendon more usable power than any player in the draft,” opined the Baseball America scouting report. The publication projected him to hit 25-30 home runs once he reached the big leagues and to hit .300, with “uncanny hand-eye coordination and exceptional strike zone discipline.”

The strike zone judgment is something that stands out among all players in the Nationals lineup. Jayson Werth likes to hit with two strikes and takes a lot of pitches. He has good strike zone management, but once he is deep in the count, Werth is just as likely to swing at something out of the zone as not. He can foul off pitches with the best of them, but during his days with Washington he has not drawn as many walks as earlier in his career. Rendon is different. In his brief minor league career, his OBP was .408 and that is a statistic that if it translates at the major league level will be singular among current Nationals hitters.

His minor league career was brief because the injury bug that bit him in 2011 at Rice continued to plague him last year. It was another ankle injury that kept him sidelined throughout most of the 2012 season. The concern that Rendon is injury prone got a huge boost and the numbers fell off when he returned. He dropped down the list of prospects to No/ 26 in the MLB.com Top 100 and Baseball America ranked several of those drafted ahead of him in 2011 as better prospects in their Top 100 listing this spring..

This is the first season since 2010 that Rendon appears to be fully healthy. That was the year he was rated the best overall prospect based on his 26 home runs,.397 batting average and a remarkable 85 RBIs in only 226 college at bats. A year earlier, as a 19-year-old freshman, he hit 20 home runs with an average of .388. It is that form he has returned to so far this season.

The remainder of this season is an opportunity for Rendon to set the record straight. One can only hope that his good health continues and that the amazing ability he has shown on both sides of the ball develops even further. If those things happen the Nationals have another jaw-dropping talent. He may even find a place in the heart of Davey Johnson, who has . been a devoted Espinosa fan - and rightly so. But Rendon has the talent to win him over yet.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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