June 30, 2006
They say that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Unfortunately for Mariners outfielder prospect Adam Jones, not much happens.
It's one of the very few advantages the minor leagues have over the majors--Pacific Coast League road trips to play the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate in Sin City. For Jones, however, it's one of the few bad things about being just 20 years old and playing one step below the big leagues. "It's frustrating, because I can't do anything out here," said the 2003 first-round pick from Las Vegas, where Tacoma was finishing up a four-game set. "The other players can enjoy it, but all I can really do is some shopping."
Then again, maybe Jones and the team don't need any distractions right now, as the Rainiers had put together a 10-game winning streak, with Jones entering Thursday's night finale with the 51s in the midst of a 12-game hitting streak in which he's gone 21-for-55 (.381). During that time, he's raised his season averages to .271/.315/.447 with a team-leading 11 home runs and 48 RBI. As the youngest outfielder on the team by three years, it's been a matter of adjusting.
"I'm trying to be a little more patient, trying to swing at better pitches," said Jones. "I'm trying to let them make mistakes and when they do, I hit them." Not that Jones has any doubt in his ability. "I'm hitting some really good pitches, too," he added.
Mistake pitches aren't easy to come by at this level. As one of the youngest players in the league, Jones has learned the hard way that pitching in the Pacific Coast League is different than in California League, where Jones began the 2005 campaign. "They outthink you up here," described the San Diego native. "I've seen guys in the past that can throw 95 mph and get lit up, but here I've seen guys in the mid-80s getting us out because they can sink it and they can cut it and they hit their spots. They're older and they're smarter."
Hitting isn't the only adjustment Jones has had to make. Jones spent his first three years in the system as a shortstop, earning Seattle's minor league player of the year honors in 2005 after batting .297 with 15 home runs, splitting the season between High Class A Inland Empire and Double-A San Antonio in the Texas League. Towards the end of the season, Mariners brass informed the prodigious talent that he'd be moving to center field. "Sure, it was weird at first," recalled Jones. "But I understood that moving there would make things quicker for me because the guy they have at shortstop now [Yuniesky Betancourt]--he's just unbelievable."
Jones was sent to the Arizona Fall League to learn his new position, where he received strong grades from scouts for his quick adaptation to the outfield. "It's actually a lot like shortstop," said Jones. "I work at the angles, which are very similar to shortstop, but deeper." As one of the top athletes in the minor leagues, the 6-foot-2, 200 pound Jones surprised nobody with his ability, and explains that while he's seen significant time in right field over the past two weeks, that's more a function of the team's talent than an indication of his future position.
"Right now all of our outfielders can play center field," said Jones. "Shin-Soo Choo can play it, Chris Snelling can play it, T.J. Bohn can play it--the coaches don't want to just stick us in one spot, and getting experience at all the positions is good for all of us in the long run." Right field has another advantage for a player who hit 96 mph off the mound in high school. "Yeah, I do get to show off the arm out there a little more."
While the arm is just one of Jones' plus tools, it goes beyond just being an excellent athlete. Coaches and team management rave about Jones' work ethic and desire to improve, and when Jones discusses his offseason dedication, he does so with a quiet intensity. "I know why I was much better in 2005 than 2004--because I worked my butt off to get better. You always have to get better. Last offseason I worked twice as hard and this offseason I'll work even harder."
"I'm not satisfied, I'm never satisfied," Jones continued. "If I was hitting .330 right now I wouldn't be satisfied."
As hard as Jones works to improve his game on the field, he has a developed a mentor relationship with 19-year veteran Mark McLemore, who like Jones is an alumnus of Morse High School in San Diego, which Jones says has prepared him for many of the off-the-field challenges faced by a professional athlete. "He's like a father figure or an older brother really," said Jones. "Everything I've been through or will go through in my career--he's already done it--so he gives me guidance on pretty much everything. He's helped me on and off the field--showing me how to carry myself in certain situations or in certain places--you can't be young and dumb, especially at this level."
And does he expect one of those experiences this year to be a major league debut? "I don't know. I understand the reality of things," Jones said. "I'm in my final protection year, so I'm not on the roster, and there are plenty of guys here who are good players and are on the roster."
"But again, I'm 20--it's not like I can be mad or anything. My time will come."