KANSAS CITY -- Right-hander Luis Mendoza came to Spring Training last February as just another arm in a large stable of pitching candidates. But when he reports to Surprise, Ariz., in less than four months, Mendoza will be a prominent candidate for the Royals' starting rotation.
That's what comes of being the 2011 Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year for Omaha and then posting two victories in two starts for Kansas City.
A top priority for the Royals in 2012 is to improve a starting rotation that last season ranked second-to-last in the American League with a 4.82 ERA and had a 45-65 record. Making a trade is a possibility and signing a top free agent is unlikely, but searching within the organization is an obvious reality.
That's where Mendoza, the new Mendoza, comes in.
Early in the 2010 season, Ned Yost wasn't yet the Kansas City manager but was working as a special advisor in the baseball operations department and, while traveling around, he watched the Royals' games on TV. He saw Mendoza, just purchased from the Texas Rangers and put in the Royals' bullpen, get lit up in four games to the tune of a 22.50 ERA. He served up four homers in four innings.
"He was too flat, very flat," Yost said. "You could see it on TV. It was right out of his hand, flat as a freakin' board. Almost like screaming 'hit me.' Now it's got kind of a dog bite on it. It comes in, ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff!"
Even Yost had to laugh at his attempt at dog barking. But his conclusion was serious.
"You know what the difference is? He pitches out there now," Yost said. "Not once in his two starts did I sit in the dugout and think, 'OK, somebody needs to go out and slow him down, and get him back to pitching and concentrate pitch-to-pitch.' He hasn't done it."
Mendoza, who'll turn 28 on Oct. 31, credits his turnaround largely to Doug Henry, the Omaha pitching coach. Henry tutored Mendoza when he was demoted after those four forgettable outings in 2010 and this year when he was 12-5 with a 2.18 ERA, including 10-3 and 1.85 in 18 starts after joining the Storm Chasers' rotation.
"When you throw up an ERA like he did in the PCL, that's outstanding," said Omaha manager Mike Jirschele. "You don't see that happening in the PCL -- half those ballparks you can spit over the wall."
But Mendoza gave up just five home runs in 144 1/3 innings.
Mendoza met Henry, an 11-year Major League reliever who ended his career with KC in 2001, when he reported to Omaha in 2010.
"I just pitched my way and didn't see any results, so I told Doug, 'Hey, teach me how to pitch like it was the first time I ever pitched, change everything. There's something I don't see or something that the hitters do see,'" Mendoza recalled. "Because I was healthy, I didn't have a lot of arm trouble. I was frustrated because I thought I was doing everything I could."
Henry changed Mendoza's arm angle more to the top, got him to hide the ball better, and his sinker began to actually sink.
"That's been a good pitch for me," he said.
Now a big man with an engaging smile, Mendoza grew up in Mexico City where his father, Alfredo, worked for an oil company and his mother, Rocio, worked in a hospital. Both are retired now and living in Veracruz where Luis was born. He has two older brothers, David and Alfredo.
"My dad tried to make them play baseball, my dad loves baseball. He had a chance to play professional, but he decided to study because in those times they didn't pay too much," Mendoza said.
Youngest son Luis took to the game so well that, at age 16, he was signed by the Boston Red Sox in 2000. He never made it to Fenway Park but, in midseason 2006, he was traded to the Rangers and his Major League debut came in September 2007. In 2008, Mendoza made the Rangers' rotation but a sore shoulder and then ineffectiveness landed him in the bullpen. This will be his first big chance since then.
After helping pitch the Storm Chasers to the PCL title this year, Mendoza was called up by the Royals in late September and went seven innings to beat the Detroit Tigers, 10-2. He pitched 7 2/3 with just 100 pitches in a 2-1 win over the Chicago White Sox.
"He hit the first baseman, [Paul] Konerko," Jirschele pointed out. "He's not afraid to pitch inside and I think what really made him effective this year was the ability to pitch inside without hitting guys, and being able to get his offspeed over for strikes."
Yost, a former catcher, noted that Mendoza's 93-mph fastball had good movement and was "very heavy" when it pounded into Salvador Perez's mitt.
"Which is hard to explain to people but, as a catcher, you can catch a ball [easily] at 97 miles an hour, but at 93 with heavy sink it feels like you're catching a bowling ball or a shot put," he said. "Boom, it hurts when it's got that down action to it."
Now living in Hermosillo with his bride Monica, Mendoza plans to get some rest and then do some pitching this winter for Obregon in the Mexican Pacific League. Just to keep things sharp and on the heavy side for Spring Training.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.