Rendon didn’t appear in a single inning of the team’s instructional league that concluded Wednesday. He didn’t face a live pitch. While other young players honed their skills in low-level professional games, Rendon sat in the dugout. Or worked on his throwing motion. He fielded hundreds of ground balls a day, and took batting practice.
The Nationals signed Rendon to a $7.2 million contract Aug. 15, then sent their latest projected superstar to Florida and stashed him in a safe deposit box. After two injuries last year limited Rendon’s production and caused him to fall to the sixth overall pick in the draft — he had been pegged as the overall No. 1 the year before — the Nationals decided going slowly was better than risking going backward.
Rendon, who won college baseball’s version of the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore in 2010, said he understood the approach as he worked his way back from a strained shoulder and broken ankle, both of which, he said, are fully healed.
But he can hardly wait to do more.
“I haven’t played any games since June,” he said. “It’s been terrible. I’m just a competitor. I want to be on the field as much as I can . . . Having to take it slow is very aggravating for me.”
On Tuesday, for the first time since arriving to instructional league in late September, Rendon received permission to throw across the diamond. He considered it a victory, on the one hand, as he had previously been restricted to short throws. On the other, as his teammates traveled by bus that afternoon to a game in Kissimmee, Rendon, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, remained behind, chatting with a reporter in one of the coach’s offices.
Just more than a year ago, Rendon was the talk of college baseball. He hit 26 home runs in 63 games as a sophomore at Rice in 2010, when he claimed the Dick Howser Trophy and other honors. It was after that season that he fractured his ankle during a tournament with the U.S. national team. A strained shoulder early in his junior season relegated him to designated hitter duties that year and raised red flags for some Major League teams, prompting questions he won’t begin to try to answer until next spring.
“It’s always going to be a struggle [to deal with pressure],” he said. “The key for me is not to pay attention to it. . . . It’s all in God’s hands. He has a path for each one of us. I wasn’t chosen 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5; I was meant to go sixth.”
Rendon has worked extensively with Jeff Garber, the Nationals’ infield throwing coordinator, on building back strength in his right shoulder and altering his throwing motion from the long, loopy technique of an outfielder to the shorter, more compact release of an infielder. Doug Harris, the Nationals director of player development, described the tinkering as the standard part of any rookie’s orientation. He emphasized that the organization was not attempting to overhaul Rendon’s technique.
Especially at the plate. Harris said he had been impressed by the beauty of Rendon’s swing, with his perfect hand and wrist action, and that nobody is toying with that.
Though the Nationals discussed sending Rendon to the Arizona Fall League — a more prestigious assignment than instructional league — it was decided that the slow pace in Florida would put Rendon in a better position to make an impact in spring training, Harris said.
“We had some initial conversations [about the Arizona Fall League], but in the end we really felt united in the fact that he hadn’t played a lot of baseball,” Harris said. “It would not be a real strong, intelligent decision to put him in an advanced league when he hasn’t played since May.”
Rendon said he actually appreciated the decision, despite his frustration at being held out of action.
“There is no point in rushing into it,” he said. “There’s no point in going out there and making a fool out of myself, not being the player I am.”
Rendon knows he will face heavy scrutiny in spring training, as fans, baseball officials and other players study his shoulder, his ankle, his demeanor. Will he end up being a steal? Or was he not worth such a high pick? For sure, Rendon said, that sort of talk won’t bother him. A lean 6-footer, Rendon doesn’t have the size expected of a power-hitting corner infielder. For years, Rendon said, he’s faced questions about his body.
“Growing up, I was always the smallest guy on the field,” Rendon said. “I didn’t have my growth spurt until my junior year in high school. I was always hearing, ‘You can’t do this, can’t do that, you’re too small.’ I always dealt with people criticizing and judging me. I’m ready for anything.”