TAMPA, Fla. – Thunder manager Tony Franklin walked over to the fence separating Field 1 from the bleachers at the Yankees’ Minor League Complex and began praising a player.
“I really love this kid, his tools, the way he approaches the game, the fun he has while he is playing. He’s a good one,’’ said Franklin.
The player’s name was Melky Mesa, who will be the Thunder’s center fielder in 2011. That conversation, however, took place back in 2009, a year when Mesa, a native of Bajos de Haina, D.R., played his first full season in the United States.
At present, Mesa is still “across the street’’ in the Yankees’ locker room, often playing as a defensive replacement for Curtis Granderson. He’s only 4-for-22 in big-league Grapefruit League games, but he’s learning, wearing No. 77, and understanding what this season means for him.
“This has been great for me, being in the Yankees clubhouse,’’ said Mesa, 24, in his rapidly improving English, every word accompanied by a wide grin. “Watching the big-leaguers is showing me what I need to do, focus on every bat, every play.
“If you work, and you concentrate and focus, you will get what you want. You will do what you want easily.’’
Thunder fans will quickly find Mesa, who finished last season with a flourish for the Florida State League champion Tampa Yankees to earn that circuit’s “Player of the Year’’ plaudit, is a fun-loving, fan-friendly guy.
On the field, however, he is dead-serious.
“What I have to do is make myself better every day, whether I play the whole game or just 10 minutes. I’ve had some good stretches, but I know I can be better.’’
At Tampa last season, he was “pretty good’’ by all accounts. Mesa batted .260 (116-for-446), with 19 homers, 74 RBIs, 21 doubles, nine triples and 81 runs scored. He also stole 31 bases in 40 attempts and made just four errors in 121 outfield starts.
Most importantly, he cut his strikeouts from 168 in 497 at-bats in Charleston in 2009 to a respectable 129 in his 446 at Tampa. All the tools Franklin talked about two years ago are developing rapidly now.
“I really feel, with where he is now, Melky can do a lot for us this season,’’ said Franklin. “Certainly after watching him for a few years, I’m glad to finally have him.
“It’s also nice to see how he has progressed.’’
Offense is not the whole package with Mesa. He has a plus-arm that rates among the best in the system. He can get the ball, whirl and throw quickly and catch a runner off the bag, or keep him from advancing.
He is developing a complete game.
“I am working hard, every day, to improve my recognition of pitches, and be more patient,’’ said Mesa. “I know what part of my game I need to improve. Playing in Trenton, in colder weather for the first time, will be a good challenge for me.
“But I feel I am up to it and am looking forward to the season.’’
Then, while Mesa is talking, his friend, pitching prospect Manny Banuelos, whose locker is around the corner in the spacious George M. Steinbrenner Field home clubhouse, asks what Mesa is talking about.
“Is he telling you he is good?’’ asks Banuelos. “He just might be. Know why?’’ Banuelos asks. “Because he is my good friend.’’
The pair, quite close, push each other, comfort each other, try to get through their challenges together. This can only foster a good clubhouse atmosphere for the Thunder.
“Those two are close,’’ said Yankees Minor League Pitching Coordinator Nardi Contreras. “That’s great to see two talented young guys like that helping each other. It certainly works for us.’’
The Thunder season-opener, April 7 at New Hampshire, will come quickly. Banuelos will likely be on the mound for Trenton, with Mesa playing in center field. The friends will talk, focus on the game and keep the dugout loose.
And no doubt put a smile on Franklin’s face.
MIDDLE OF LINEUP POTENTIAL: So far, Cody Johnson, the power-hitting former top Atlanta draft pick, is having a strong spring in an effort to earn a spot with the Thunder.
He is being selective at the plate and, like Mesa, is concentrating on taking what the pitchers are giving him. Johnson is also enjoying being part of the Yankees system.’
“All the coaches, everyone, has been so positive with me,’’ said Johnson. “I feel, all the time, everyone is trying to help me get better.’’
If Johnson continues his strong play, Franklin’s 3-4-5 in his batting order could be Brad Suttle, Mesa and Johnson, a Double-A rookie trio certainly with the potential to cause headaches as far as opposing Eastern League pitchers are concerned.
Baselines is providing daily spring-training reports from its annual trip to the Thunder camp in Tampa, Fla., last week. Comments are welcomed below, or at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at @jedleyq.