In January 2011, with his right shoulder aching and his resolve fading, pitcher Gil Meche decided to retire. He forfeited $12 million in salary, which left the Royals with a budgetary surplus, and the rare opportunity to spend money twice. The sacrifice by Meche, along with the acumen of the Royals’ Latin American scouting department, led to the acquisition of the team’s most enticing current prospect.
Owner David Glass instructed his front office to invest the newfound money in the draft and the international market. The front office of general manager Dayton Moore had already located one target: Raul Adalberto Mondesi, the teenage son of former All-Star outfielder Raul Mondesi. Kansas City forked over $2 million to sign Mondesi, a shortstop with five tools and a lofty ceiling, out of the Dominican Republic in July 2011.
“We fought for him, internationally,” Moore said. “We fought to win the negotiations for him. We felt he was going to be special.”
Mondesi may prove them right. He represented Kansas City for the World team in Sunday’s Futures Game at Great American Ball Park. At 19, he was the second-youngest player on the international side. He legged out an infield single and showed some defensive range while Team USA rolled for a 10-1 victory. He joined first baseman Balbino Fuenmayor and infielder Cheslor Cuthbert as Royals representatives.
Mondesi has always been precocious. He survived a full season as an 18-year-old at Class A Wilmington last season, and is currently doing the same with Class AA Northwest Arkansas. Mondesi could join the Royals in September as an extra infielder. He has been playing some second base to prepare for a utility role in the big leagues.
Mondesi is the jewel of the Royals’ minor-league system and their most appealing asset for potential trade discussions, rival evaluators say, even if the Royals have little interest in parting with him. During their midseason review, Baseball America rated him the game’s No. 25 prospect.
“There’s really nothing that he doesn’t possess,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “He’s a top-of-the-scale runner. He’s got power from both sides of the plate. He plays a premium position. He’s got a plus arm.”
And he still has not turned 20. For a player that young to survive in the Texas League is “very rare,” explained Northwest Arkansas manager Vance Wilson. Mondesi reminds Wilson of one of his former teammates with the Mets, another switch-hitting, five-tool shortstop from the Dominican: Jose Reyes. Reyes debuted in the majors at 19 years old, able to survive due to his slick fielding and his propulsive legs.
“When I watched Jose, those were two things that really stood out,” Wilson said. “Now managing Raul, it’s the same thing.”
As Mondesi approaches the big leagues, the player development staff tasked the minor-league coaches with sharpening his tools for game usage. Wilson counsels Mondesi on reading keys on the bases, so he can steal more efficiently. Mondesi has swiped only seven bases this season.
Rival scouts have also identified his overzealous approach at the plate. In 36 games with Northwest Arkansas, Mondesi has walked only four times. He is hitting .258 with a .677 on-base plus slugging percentage.
“I’ve got to stay focused on hitting the ball up the middle, the other way,” Mondesi said. “Because I just try to pull too much.”
The picture is not perfect. Mondesi injured his back during the first game of the season. He missed the rest of April. The condition returned in June, and Mondesi sat out two weeks.
But the Royals still believe he could contribute in the majors, especially as a late-game defensive replacement or as a pinch runner when the rosters expand. Some within the front office believe Mondesi will truly flourish only when he reaches the majors. He understands his talent and understands his potential.
Mondesi grew up around the game. His father was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1994 and played for 13 seasons. Raul Adalberto was born in Los Angeles a year later, when his father made the All-Star team for the Dodgers. His father told Royals assistant general manager Rene Francisco that his son slept with his glove underneath his pillow.
Francisco sensed a preternatural instinct in Mondesi, as if the game occurred a slower speed for him than it did for others. Even at 15 and 16, Mondesi looked calm. The gift must be innate, Francisco surmised.
“It was like looking at a much older player,” Francisco said.
Mondesi displayed the same qualities this last spring in his first big-league spring training. He flashed impressive range soon after entering Sunday’s game. He swept across second base to scoop a grounder. His throw to first base was swift and true.
Despite his age, despite his trouble with injuries this season, the big leagues still beckon for Mondesi. Given his history, he’ll likely arrive sooner rather than later.
“Everybody talks about that, like I’m close,” Mondesi said.
“But I just need to do my work. If I do my work, I know I’m going to be there.”
HOME RUN DERBY
▪ WHEN/WHERE: 7 tonight in Cincinnati
▪ TV: ESPN
▪ WHEN/WHERE: 7 p.m. Tuesday in Cincinnati
▪ TV: pregame starts at 6 p.m. on Fox (Channel 4)