“My father passed away when I was 19,” Tony Renda said the other day, standing outside the home dugout at Class A Potomac. “He was 56. July 18, 2010. He was a contractor. He built homes – custom homes – for 20 years. He played ball in high school, but never went to college. Neither one of my parents went to college. He built homes and wanted to build them perfect, and wanted to build his sons perfect, and wanted us to be perfect on the field in an imperfect game. He demanded perfection, which is okay with me.”
Renda’s late father, Frank, had come in a conversation after the subject of his confidence surfaced. Renda, Potomac’s second baseman and the Nationals’ second round pick in 2012, is 5 feet 8 inches and weighs about 175 pounds. He was always undersized, and Frank Renda never let his son use it as an excuse. He told him to believe he was good enough. By now, Renda has internalized his size as an advantage.
“I’m happy with what I have,” Renda said. “I’ve been blessed in many ways. I’m happy that I’m 5-8, 175 pounds. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every single day, I go out and I just put what I have out there. Whatever is, whatever I have, that’s what I’m going to give, and trust that it’s good enough.”
Shortly after Renda’s professional career began, scouting director Kris Kline visited him at the Nationals’ rookie ball affiliate in Auburn. He plopped down on a bench next to Renda and told him, “Keep doing what you’re doing, and you’re going to be a big leaguer one day.” Renda looked him in eye with a slight grin. “Yeah,” Renda said. “I know.”
At the start of his career, Renda has stayed on track. Last year at Low-A Hagerstown, Renda hit .294 with a .380 on-base percentage, 30 steals and 43 doubles. He moved up to Potomac this season and missed a month after he strained a quadriceps while beating out an infield single. In 150 plate appearances, Renda is hitting .318 with a .407 on-base percentage and five steals.
Renda has only hit three homers in his professional career, and he doesn’t care. He molds his style to his best attributes. His excellent batting eye allows him to take full advantage of his small strike zone. His compact swing produces line drives and gappers. He does not possess great speed, but he is an excellent base runner. It’s not about grit – he has tremendous ability to barrel pitches, and an innate awareness. Renda can use the ability because he understands his strengths so well.
“It’s like our infield coordinator, Jeff Garber, says: Don’t let people put labels on you,” Renda said. “That hits home with me. Don’t let people label you. Don’t let people say that you’re too small. Don’t let people say you’re average speed. If they say you’re average speed, go out and steal bags. Go first to third. Score 100 runs. You don’t have enough power – well, drive the ball into gaps. Hit doubles. I would say I’m not a home run hitter. I’m gap to gap. I’ll get on base for our home run hitters, let them drive me. Everybody’s got to do a job on the team. That’s mine.”
Renda entered college at Cal as a third baseman, and he moved to second base his sophomore season. He never really learned how to play it, though. “I came into the organization, I didn’t know anything about playing second base,” Renda said. “What I knew about playing second base was going to Giants games and watching the big leaguers play, just mimicking what they did.”
Nationals officials say Renda’s biggest improvement has come on defense. He has turned his glove from a weakness to a burgeoning strength.
“In college, I could always hit,” Renda said. “I always trusted my hitting. I was going to show up. It was always my defense that was iffy. Now: Hit me the groundball. You’re out.”
Though the Nationals chose Renda in the second round, he did not enter his career with an especially high profile. The Nationals selected him in part because he would sign under slot – he took $500,000 – and free up room to pay first-round pick Lucas Giolito. Baseball America ranked him Renda the Nationals’ No. 13 prospect coming into the season.
The Nationals believe he will reach the majors before his career ends. Renda believes, too.
“I feel like I’m on pace,” Renda said. “I feel I’m going to have to prove myself at every level, and I’m okay with that. I will prove myself.”
>>> Class AA Harrisburg center fielder Michael Taylor was named the Eastern League’s player of the month for May. In the month, Taylor hit .374 with a .446 on-base percentage, a .720 slugging percentage and nine homers. For the season, Taylor is hitting .320/.403/.612 with 15 homers.
For the past two years, the Nationals have touted have Taylor’s defense. Both they and rival evaluators believed he could play above-average, or even elite, defense in the majors right away. The concern has been his bat. This year, he has broken out beyond even the most optimistic projections.
One rival scout compared Taylor to long-time major leaguer Mike Cameron and said he’s about a year and a half away from the majors. “His bat went backwards last year,” the scout said. “I don’t know where the power came from, but it’s there now.”
Taylor still strikes out a ton. Even in his monster May, he whiffed 33 times in 107 at-bats. For the season, he has 77 strikeouts in 237 plate appearances, a rate of 32.4 percent. But Taylor, whom the Nationals added to their 40-man roster this winter, has been destroying the ball and drawing plenty of walks, too.
>>> Taylor has perhaps passed Brian Goodwin, a 2011 first-round pick the Nationals signed with a $3 million bonus. The same scout said he sees inconsistent effort from Goodwin, who is hitting .211 with a .683 OPS at Class AAA Syracuse. Goodwin has outstanding raw ability and fast hands at the plate. He hasn’t put it together yet, but at 23 he’s still young for his level.
>>> Aside from Taylor, Matt Skole, A.J. Cole and lefty reliever Matt Grace, the scout said Harrisburg is thin on talent. Skole is still recovering from the effects of a sore hamstring, which stemmed from last year’s Tommy John surgery — doctors turned a tendon in his leg into a ligament in his elbow. But his swing works, and he has enough power to stick at first base.
>>> Outfielder Steven Souza Jr. has destroyed the International League. “A man amongst boys,” a Nationals official said. “Not just his size. The way he’s dictating every at-bat.” In 168 plate appearances, Souza, 25, is hitting .371/.476/.586 — he leads the league in all three categories. He’s been playing center field four days a week, too. The Nationals have an outfield logjam as it stands, but Souza is mking a strong case to rejoin Washington at some point.