Rendon checked the coaches’ room. He checked Johnson’s office. No sign of the manager. Finally, Rendon left the park. He had realized Johnson had meant they would work out together Sunday.
“When they say, ‘When we get home’ over there, they mean, ‘Today,’ ” Johnson said. “He misinterpreted it.”
“Over there” means the minor league side of the Nationals’ organization, which Rendon is not long for. He possesses more talent than any Nationals prospect, and he provided a primer Sunday afternoon. In a 2-2, 10-inning tie against the Miami Marlins, Rendon swatted a two-run, opposite-field home run and made a dazzling barehanded play at third base.
Afterward, Johnson diagnosed what Rendon, 22, needs to reach the major leagues. The Nationals drafted him sixth overall in 2011, and he signed with a major league contract worth more than $7 million. Baseball America, the bible for prospect rankings, considers him the No. 30 prospect in baseball. He is the kind of minor leaguer whose natural skill requires little improvement. He needs only experience and opportunity.
“Just reps,” Johnson said. “And having a position for him.”
Johnson also said he hopes Rendon stays healthy, which is the only knock against him. Last year, he fractured his left ankle in the second game of his season with Class A Potomac and played only 43 games, finishing at Class AA Harrisburg. Early in college, he missed an entire year when he tore ligaments in his right ankle. He also played almost no infield his senior year at Rice because of a strain in his shoulder.
“I guess it was my bad luck, my three or four years,” Rendon said last week. “That’s how I’m going to view it right now. I’m just looking forward to what’s ahead in my future.”
Rendon knows some people have attached an “injury prone” label on him. He disagrees, but he understands.
“I can’t blame them,” Rendon said. “If I were to see somebody, if I were in their perspective, seeing how many injuries they had, I might probably feel the same way. But obviously, I don’t feel that way about myself. I couldn’t help the way fields are. It’s just a freak accident.”
The way fields are? Almost a year later, Rendon grudgingly admitted he believes the field in Lynchburg, the Braves’ Class A affiliate, may have contributed to his ankle fracture, which he suffered rounding third base.
“I’m just running straight, and I turned my ankle,” Rendon said. “It’s a lot of ins and outs people don’t know about. The field in Lynchburg — I don’t want to just knock on other people’s organizations — it wasn’t the best of fields or whatever. I’m not going to make any excuses. I’ve just got to move on.”
Rendon’s moving on began this spring. He feels more at ease in his second major league camp — what to expect, how long drills will take, where he needs to be. “I guess I’m a little more myself now,” he said.
Before the game Sunday, Johnson took Rendon over to a back field and put him through drills at second base. Rendon plays third, but Ryan Zimmerman, so long as he can relearn throwing after shoulder surgery, is entrenched there. Rendon, as Johnson said, needs a position, and so the Nationals will move him around the infield. Rendon impressed Johnson with his natural, quick footwork around the bag.
Rendon started at third base, and in the third inning he had a chance to show off his slick fielding. The Marlins’ Chone Figgins dropped a sacrifice bunt down the third base line. Rendon charged, scooped it with his bare hand, set himself and made a powerful, overhand throw to first base, nabbing Figgins by a full step.
In his first at-bat, Rendon smoked a one-hopper right at the shortstop. During a rain delay, Johnson walked through the dugout and told starters they were coming out. Rendon tried to sit quietly, to avoid detection so he could stay in. Johnson made eye contact with Rendon. He nodded to the field. “All right,” Johnson said. “You’re getting another at-bat.”
Rendon faced right-handed reliever Ryan Webb, a major leaguer last season with a 4.03 ERA in 601
3 innings. Webb fed Rendon a fastball away, and Rendon pulverized it. The ball rocketed to right-center field, over the wall.
Rendon swings easy, and the ball trampolines off his bat. Last year in Class AA Harrisburg, Rendon hit three home runs, all of them, he said, to the opposite field.
“This last year or so, I’ve noticed I’ve gotten a lot of power toward the right side,” the 6-foot, 195-pound right-handed hitter said. “I guess it’s just happening. I really don’t know.”
Rendon will start the season in the minors, likely Harrisburg but possibly Class AAA Syracuse. He will bide his time, gaining experience and waiting for his opportunity. With injuries to others, the Nationals may summon him during the summer. As long he stays healthy — “Play a whole season,” he says when asked his goal — then a September call-up seems certain.
“Of course, it’s going to be in my mind,” Rendon said. “I can’t jump ahead. I just got to keep working hard, day in and day out. If they feel I can help the team somehow, I’m up for it.”