Updated: May 2, 2019
THIS IS A COUNTDOWN!!!!! Over the next forty-something days, starting on February 12th and ending on March 28th, I will be rolling out my Top 35 prospects in the Cardinals organization. We call it "The Dirty Thirty-Five" because it's marketable, I think. Also, we call it that because my write-ups and evaluations are a little different. I’m kind of a quirky and goofy guy and the evaluations fit that personality. I've already written about the four players that graduated off the list. I've also written about the guys that just missed the list. You should check those out because you're going to have questions about my sanity afterwards. The article about the guys that didn’t make the D35 is really freaking good. This list is my own. It's terrible. I'm fine with it. Remember, have fun with these lists. Ranking prospects is a joke, but it's fun so treat all of the prospect ranking accordingly.
Evan Mendoza - Third...errrr... First Baseman?
AA Springfield & A Little AAA Memphis
Drafted in the 11th Round of the 2017 Draft
STATS AS OF 5-1-2019
This is a story about how quickly we forget about success in this sport. This is a story about how quickly we lose faith and turn on players.
There are a couple of contextual notes that you need to know before we get too far into this evaluation. First, the Florida State League (FSL) is a tough league on hitters. Swirling winds and major league sized ballparks suppress power and all varieties of slugging. Also, as the highest level with the "A" designation, it's the first time that most of these hitters are consistently going up against pitchers that have a chance to make the majors.
The second thing that you need to know for proper context is that the vast majority of players that are drafted, hitters especially, don't get assigned to this level at the start of their first full season in the organization. Even if they did extremely well during aggressive promotions during the half-season in which they were drafted, it's still a rarity. Those type of players might find their way to that level by the end of their first full season, but rarely ever at the start of it. And, if they do find their way to that level to start their first full season, often times they struggle for the vast majority of that season.
Now, before we get to his 2018 season, let's take a few minutes to talk about who Evan Mendoza was before he was drafted.
Mr. Mendoza signed on to pitch for NC State, and he did just that as a true freshman. However, after that freshman season, Mendoza decided that he wanted to go back to playing the field. SO, he spent the offseason between his freshman and sophomore seasons focused on playing third base. By the start of his sophomore season, months after being a pitcher, Mendoza was the starting third baseman. He did this for two years, and it took him until the end of his junior year, right before he was drafted, to really get a feel for his approach and abilities in the box.
Now, let's move on to his 2018 season.
This player, this young man, just two full seasons removed from being a relief pitcher at NC State, was the starting third baseman for the Palm Beach Cardinals. He impressed at two separate levels after being drafted in 2017, and that earned the aggressive and tough promotion to the FSL. He even won a batting title in the New York/Penn League in 2017 after being drafted.
Instead of having that league eat him alive like it would have done to nearly any player in his situation (and like it did, at first, to our #31 prospect on the countdown, Chase Pinder), Mendoza owned the league. As a matter of fact, he only spent 37 games in the FSL before being promoted because of how good and advanced he was at that level.
In those 37 games spanning 162 plate appearances in the FSL, Mendoza hit 349/394/456 with seven doubles and three home runs. He did this while walking a modest 5.6% of the time and striking out a very good (for that level, with his experience) 16.7% of the time.
At this point, the walk rate and lack of power was a concern, but the lack of power wasn't as concerning because of the power suppressing that often happens in the FSL. Look no further than the 147 wRC+ that he posted to see how productive he was at the level as compared to the league average. He was also hitting monster home runs over the outfield grandstands, like this one (OK, they weren't all monster home runs but none of them were the type to just sneak over the wall):
Of course, none of that even touched on his defensive abilities at third (notice the majesty of his defense in college during in the first two .gifs within this article).
You'll hear a lot of talk about other players in the organization being the best defensive infielder prospect for the Cardinals. Unless that player's name that you are hearing is Edwin Figuera, ignore that noise because Mendoza is the real answer. He's a rangy, and aggressive, third baseman that isn't afraid to dive or move or jump or scale or hop the rail to make a play.
Mendoza has an above average arm even when he's throwing off balance. There's a lot that has been made, because of this list of best tools in the Cardinals' organization by Baseball America, about Elehuris Montero's arm at third. Montero has a great arm, but it's only superior to Mendoza's when Montero is coming in on the ball. I'll take Mendoza's arm over Montero's from anywhere on the left side of the diamond.
Now, I'm not saying that he's a future Fielding Bible award winner (Gold Glove Award, lol), but what I'm telling you is that he's every bit as good defensively as any player that's manned the hot corner for the Cardinals since Scott Rolen did (shout out to Felipe Lopez for no reason at all). That is, if he keeps developing along this track. This play is from college, but it's wonderful:
While his defense kept up after he was promoted to AA Springfield, very little else did. It was nice to see his walk rate jump to 7.5% (which is still in need of improvement), but everything else dipped. His strikeout rate jumped to 19.2%, his home run rate and doubles rate dipped, and his slugging percentage tanked. All of these numbers are worrisome. All of these trends are bad.
HOWEVER, I am not as worried about it as most seemed to be. Yes, you'd love to see a player blow AA up even if they aren't ready for the level. But that player should also not be heavily penalized because of poor performance at the level so quickly after being drafted. What I do like is that his line drive and fly ball rates jumped and, that his groundball rate dropped. Plus, the stats only tell you so much. He was still capable of driving the ball, too.
At the AA level, what I often saw from Mendoza at the plate was a young man that was trying too hard to not get fooled and to make contact. This happens sometimes with players that are as gifted at hitting with two strikes as Mendoza is. Often times, Mendoza would just slap at the ball. Not because he was fooled by the pitch but, rather, because he was focused on the contact aspect of his game and not the "controlling the strike zone, the count, and what he can at the plate" part of his game like he demonstrated at Palm Beach. He was susceptible against breaking pitches at the AA level, and I believe that he's going to need to tone that leg kick down a bit if he wants to avoid being vulnerable against advanced breaking pitches in the future. At the same time, he is capable of pushing one of those backdoor breaking pitches down the first base line if he needs to, so maybe that leg kick isn't the biggest deal.
All of the rambling in that last chapter (paragraph) is to say that, while I am definitely worried about his power potential, I am not worried about the stats that he put up at AA. That's because I believe that his understanding of the strike zone and plate coverage will take over in 2019. I expect that we will see something in 2019 that is closer to what we saw during his time in Palm Beach, and not what we saw during his time at Springfield. Of course, only time will tell. What I know for a fact is, I wouldn't bet against this extremely hard worker. I don't think that it'll come as a surprise to you that this kid runs the bases extremely well and in a very smart way, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Offensive production will be the key for Mendoza moving forward. While I definitely want to see more power from this young man, what I want to see more than anything is a return to his Palm Beach form. Hopefully, and more than likely, Mendoza will start the year back in AA. There, he'll be able to get some traction before making his AAA debut. While he did experiment at short stop during the 2018 season, it doesn't appear to be a legitimate everyday option, right now, for this extremely gifted third baseman, defensively. I fully expect him to recover at Springfield the same way that Tommy Edman did in 2018. As other third basemen in the organization appear to be sexier options (see Nolan Gorman, Malcom Nunez, and Elehuris Montero), Mendoza just might be the most polished of the group. He is not to be forgotten about.
**SPRING TRAINING UPDATE**
Mendoza has found his way into a couple of games this spring for the big league club via the S.T.E.P camp. He's done very well in limited at-bats, but his plate appearances aren't why I wanted to bring it up here. No, the reason that it's noteworthy is because he's played a ton of first base in those games. I'm guessing that the Cardinals don't view first base as his position in the long term, but I do think that it shows us just how versatile Mendoza is capable of being. It's just spring, and it means very little, but it's been cool to see him playing in "A-Squad" games, all while handling a position that he isn't familiar with!
MAY 1st UPDATE
The Cardinals have played Evan Mendoza at first baseman more than anywhere else in the field and, jesus, you talk about killing a players value and marginalizing his talent. What a waste. Mendoza is the best defensive 3B in the organization, and if you're going to move him to any position then you pick a position that isn't first base. What a nightmare. So poorly done. After a rough start to the season during his first ten to twelve games or so, Mendoza is back to hitting really well over his last ten or so, hitting 297/366/432 in a modest 41 plate appearances. He's fine and he's starting to show why his bat profiled as a potential top 15 pick in the organization. If only the Cardinals could figure out the defensive aspect of his value...
Thank you to FanGraphs for the stats.
Thanks For Reading!!