I got the opportunity to catch up with Nationals prospect Drew Mendoza recently to see how it has been for him since spring training was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mendoza returned to Tallahassee, Fla., to continue his workouts in hopes that the baseball season can be saved. Normally this time of year, the former Florida State star is deep into a baseball regular season, so the shutdown required him to make some adjustments in his preparation. He is ranked as the No. 11 Nationals prospect in the system according to MLBPipeline.com.
“It’s very unique,” Mendoza said. “It started with having my first spring break in about 10 years. So having time off in spring as opposed to being in season is extremely unique. Other than that, it’s just been weird. Everybody is kind of making do with what they have. Just staying safe and doing as much as we can.”
Mendoza set up a workout training area in front of his residence in Florida. Then, practicing social distancing, he and his buddies continued their preparation for a possible baseball season.
“My roommates and I acquired some weights,” Mendoza said. “Really, we have been having a jailhouse front yard workout, if you will. We have been running a little bit and we’ve been able to throw, so keeping the arm in shape. A buddy of mine has a little popup net for hitting off a tee, so I’ve been able to do that as far as the swing goes. Really, other than that, it has been tough. Tennis ball drills for ground balls, but not much outside the house.”
The 6-foot-5, 230 lb. third baseman relished the time he got to spend at spring training with the Nationals. The third-round 2019 selection played 55 games for low Single-A Hagerstown to begin his pro career. So this was supposed to be his first full spring camp. Mendoza soaked in a ton of knowledge in a very short period of time, the one-on-one education extremely beneficial.
“I loved spring training up to the point where we were sent home,” Mendoza said. “That was my first spring training as a pro and to be around all the coordinators and all the veteran players for an extended period of time day in and day out, have that work, have that one-on-one time, it was great. It was really the first time I have had that much instruction in a consistent period of time. I felt like my personal improvements were quicker and more efficient than they have been in the past. I certainly can’t wait to get back into that, but it is definitely exciting for the future.”
Mendoza got to speak with a couple of the big leaguers in West Palm Beach during workouts and batting practice. This knowledge was also valuable to the former All-Atlantic Coast Conference performer.
“I spoke to Howie Kendrick, he was a very nice guy,” Mendoza said. “I got to speak with (hitting coach) Kevin Long for a little while. His expertise is really unmatched in the game right now. To hear from him, and being able to just watch some of the big leaguers in the cage from afar was really fun. Just to see how they work and see their preparation (was important). I got to be in the dugout twice for a big league game. Seeing Asdrúbal Cabrera making a play in the field that I’ve watched him on TV do for the last 12 years is cool. I’m still in really that ‘wow, that’s really who that is!’ stage.”
Mendoza played for manager Patrick Anderson in Hagerstown, slashing .264/.377/.383 with 12 doubles, four homers and 25 RBIs. Mendoza explained the difference between playing in Hagerstown versus a big game in the ACC for a baseball school like Florida State.
“It was great, I really enjoyed it,” Mendoza said. “I’d say the main difference between college and pro ball for me in that transition was the love for the game has to come back. Because especially in a place like Hagerstown, the atmosphere is not something gives you goosebumps that you’re ready to go play, and there’s no adrenaline as far as the atmosphere.
“The love for the game really comes back out. I think that happened for me. I had a great group of guys, the team was awesome. Patrick Anderson was great manager, the hitting coach (Amaury Garcia) was great. We had a good time. We put together a little bit of a run towards the end, won some games. A lot of ups and downs throughout, but the group of guys I was with made the transition to pro ball really smooth.”
Mendoza estimated he played “85 percent” of his games at first base for the Suns, after spending his collegiate career at third base. The Nats focused on footwork, glovework and positioning on defense. He said those teaching sessions from Nats coordinators opened up some doors for him mentally regarding defensive setup, pre-play strategy and timing. He was pleasantly surprised at the new ideas the Nats offered.
“There’s a lot of things that I’ve heard in the Nationals organization regarding defense from our infield coordinator, Jeff Garber, that I’ve never really heard before,” Mendoza said. “It’s exciting to put that into work, especially the footwork aspect. Whether I am taking a half step away from the ball as opposed to (toward the ball). Or the angle or route that I am taking to the ball, choosing which hop and how to play each hop with the hand. A lot of it is stuff that I’ve never been taught and it’s exciting to see the freedom that it gives me on the field once those fundamentals are kind of cleaned up. Third or first or wherever else, I’m excited to do it because Garber has really been my guy and he’s helped me out a lot.”
Mendoza said Garber helped him feel comfortable working at first base and the 22-year-old realized how much he started to enjoy the new spot after all that hot corner work in Tallahassee over the years.
“The angle off the bat is definitely new,” Mendoza said. “It didn’t take me long to get comfortable over there. I really enjoyed playing around the bag, receiving throws. I really enjoyed that, both in game and in practice. I just think that is a really fun part of first base. The double play ball, the spin throw from first base to second - that was something I needed to learn. Once again, Jeff Garber has been there with me every step of the way. He’s got a tidbit for each certain play in the infield, which blows my mind. He’s been really helpful in that transition.”
And with the hope of saving some of the 2020 season, Mendoza does not care if he plays first base, third base or elsewhere on the field. He just wants to get back to baseball.
“I’m willing to play both positions, excited to play both spots,” Mendoza said. “Whichever one fits best in the organization is the one that I’m excited to play.”