EVENING UPDATE: Local baseball players Blake Smith, a Downey High graduate, and Tom Mendonca, a Turlock High grad, were drafted in the second round of today's Major League Baseball draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers, respectively.
Smith, a 6-2, 220-pound pitcher/outfielder for Cal, was picked 56th overall, while Mendonca, a 6-1, 200-pound third baseman for Fresno State, was chosen 62nd. Smith finished the season with a .319 average, 10 homers and 38 RBIs. Mendonca, Fresno State’s all-time career home run leader with 57, was named the 2009 Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year this season and Most Oustanding Player of last year’s College World Series. He ranked third in the NCAA this season with 27 homers.
Marquise Cooper helped win baseball games with his foot speed this season. Turlock's Tommy Mendonca did it with his bat speed.
Those two central San Joaquin Valley players, tested on decidedly different yet large stages, have a chance to be chosen early in Major League Baseball's amateur draft and are at the top of the list of local names to watch when the draft gets under way today.
A leadoff hitter with 35 stolen bases and a team-best .454 batting average, Cooper helped Edison High win its first Central Section baseball title this season. Mendonca helped squeeze Fresno State back into the NCAA regionals. The Bulldogs' career home run king maintained a .339 average with 27 homers and 78 RBIs in 2009 after being the College World Series MVP in the Bulldogs' national-title run in 2008.
Mendonca's and Cooper's skills have whipped up waves of attention.
In its recent draft preview, Baseball America ranked Mendonca as the fifth-best third baseman in the draft and slotted him to go in the third or fourth round. Mendonca couldn't be reached to comment for this story.
Cooper said he is being told by his adviser, former World Series champion pitcher Dave Stewart, to expect his name called between the fourth and sixth rounds.
While neither projection should be far off base, one pro scout familiar with the players said predicting where players go is an inexact science.
"There's really no way of knowing how names are going to go off the board," the scout said. "You can think you're going to get a guy in the fourth round and he's gone in the second."
Why? One team may love a player while another club may simply like him.
There are several qualities to love about both Cooper and Mendonca.
Mendonca brought attention to himself with his power at the plate. His quick, left-handed bat, strong wrists and good throwing arm at third base didn't disappoint this season despite the spotlight squarely shining on him.
Cooper delivered in the face of pressure this season, as well. Edison coach Cliff Rold said scouts attended each Tigers game this season to check on Cooper.
What they saw was a 5-foot-9, 165-pound 17-year-old brimming with athleticism. Cooper also starred on the Tigers football team, starting at running back and middle linebacker.
"He has excellent reactions in the outfield, a 6.4-second 60-yard dash and a plus throwing arm," Rold said. "At 17, there are a whole lot of tools to work with and develop long-term."
The scout said Cooper's age does count as a positive -- if his maturity level is good -- because it gives teams more time to work with him.
A negative for Cooper is his comparatively limited experience playing the game. As a two-sport athlete he missed out on opportunities to play baseball year-round and also has one less baseball season under his belt because he began school early. He turns 18 in October, Rold said.
"He's an exciting, intriguing player," said the scout. "He just hasn't played the game as much. He hasn't gone to all the showcases. There are some questions there. He hasn't seen some of the pitching others have seen. But tools-wise, this is an exciting player."
Cooper said he has worked out for multiple teams, including the Seattle Mariners late last week.
He said the draft process has been fun.
"I've gotten a lot of experience seeing the competition out there," Cooper said. "I've learned to stay focused. You're the only one that can perform, so you have to go out there and do your best."
Cooper describes himself as a contact hitter who is going to get stronger physically, which will lead to more power.
"I hit it in the gaps or on the ground, and I beat (the throw) out," Cooper said.
If things go his way through the draft and this summer, he'll have beaten out the odds and made the leap from high school to professional athletics.
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