Late-round Cubs pick receiving high marks

He was 20 years old (now 21) for much of the summer, just a couple months removed from the 2008 amateur draft. He would lead all Chicago Cubs' short-season minor league players in batting average, hitting five home runs and totaling 30 RBIs, and it's a safe bet that many folks can't even tell you his name.

Perhaps it is understandable. After all, he was not selected by the Cubs until the mid-to-late rounds on Day 2 (20th round, 611th overall) of the draft from Louisiana Tech University, where he'd overcome a double hernia injury after his sophomore season in 2007.

Yet for the initial lack of fanfare over this seemingly casual 20th-round pick, INF/OF Jericho Jones would soon go on to boast numbers like that of a top-round selection in his pro debut season.

In 43 games with the Mesa Cubs of the Arizona Rookie League, Jones batted .340 with 18 extra-base hits and compiled an on-base percentage of .390 – a number that would surely have been higher if not for the fact that he struck out in 25 percent of his 159 at-bats.

Jones had led the Bulldogs with a .364 batting average and 46 RBIs during his final college season, but even he was surprised by the number of hits he accumulated in his first taste of pro ball. He'd had no prior game experience with wooden bats, using them only in batting cages between games.

"It was kind of a big question mark coming in because of the wood bats, playing every day, already playing in a college season," admits Jones, a native of Corinth, Texas.

"I didn't know what to expect really from a day-to-day aspect of it. I didn't know how my game would transfer over to the pro level."

The Cubs' scout who profiled Jones in college -- and later convinced Chicago to draft him -- seemed to know. He could see an athletic player with a strong, well-developed body.

"The first thing when you walk into the ballpark and you see this guy that's 6'4, 6'5 is he looks like a major leaguer, and so that was half of the battle right there," says Mike Valarezo, the Cubs' area scout in Alabama, northwestern Florida, Mississippi, western Tennessee and Louisiana.

Perhaps more than anything else, Valarezo could see a passion resonating throughout this particular young player's body and the way it manifested in games.

"When he was a freshman, he was an All-American and then as a sophomore, he battled through some injuries," Valarezo said. "I knew what I was getting into when I went over there during the fall before the spring started and sat with those draft-eligible guys. I got a chance to talk with Jericho, and you can tell he has a passion to play, a burning desire to play. That excited me a little bit.

"It's just like anything you do. Out here in the real world, you can tell when somebody's excited (whether its) playing baseball, being an IT, or working for UPS; it just oozes from you. There's a twinkle in their eye and they're hanging on every word you're saying. It plays a huge part because it lets you know you don't have to worry about this guy sleeping in, because this guy is always going to want to be at the ballpark; he's always going to want to play; he's always going to want to be in the middle of the action when it comes to playing for the Chicago Cubs."

Jones, a proud Texas Rangers fan growing up, was excited about the thought of being drafted, and why not? The surgery to repair the double hernia had required him to cut short his stint in the Cape Cod League -- one of the premiere leagues for college players to show off and strengthen their draft status in front of hundreds of scouts each year -- in the summer of 2007 after just one lone at-bat.

Because Jones had actually injured the hernia in a weekend series against McNeese State of the Southland Conference earlier that year, he'd had to play most all of his sophomore season with nagging discomfort. Eight months after the injury took place, Jones finally underwent surgery, he said.

By that point the injury was beginning to affect his play.

"The inside pitch was difficult to get to because I wasn't able to rotate freely (since) your body kind of compensates for not wanting to hurt itself, so I wasn't turning on my back foot as much as I usually do," Jones said. "You can look at my numbers and I was hitting about .360 as a freshman, and then about .305 as a sophomore. It was hampering my game in different ways."

Not the least of which was his pitching. As a member of the Lake Dallas Falcons high school team, Jones -- like a lot of prep talent -- served doubly as a hitter and pitcher.

He helped lead his team to state championships his junior and senior seasons before opting for a baseball scholarship at Louisiana Tech -- in part because the Bulldogs were willing to let him continue pitching.

In fact, Jones says that coming out of high school, hitting was probably his self-described "weakest tool." On the mound, Valarezo recalls Jones possessing a fastball of 91-92 mph in the games he saw him pitch at Tech, in addition to featuring a serviceable breaking ball.

"He threw strikes," Valarezo said. "He was a weekend rotation guy."

But hitting nevertheless became front and center for Jones in college.

"Before I knew it, I went from getting a chance to start every day to putting up some numbers to getting some accolades as a Freshman All-American," recalls Jones, who batted .357 with a freshman record 16 home runs in 2006 at Tech. "That was a pretty big deal. I didn't know if I'd be playing at all and it ended up working out all right."

It's not a surprise then that Jones' arm has transformed into a solid fixture in the outfield, where he contributed eight assists at Tech last season, and Valarezo said he could envision Jones playing either left or right field as he continues his trek through the Cubs' system.

But Jones is also looking to become more versatile, starting this past summer when he began taking reps at first base. Cubs Minor League Infield Coordinator Bobby Dickerson spotted Jones in the Arizona League and announced: "I want to see that boy at first base taking some groundballs."

"First base was kind of a new thing for me," says Jones. "I hadn't played infield at all since I was about 10 years old playing All-Stars. (Dickerson) hit me some groundballs and before I knew it, I was taking them every day. After that, I was getting into games and it was a (good) experience for sure."

Coming into the Cubs' fall Instructional League camp in Arizona, Jones expected to get the same type of work he got in the summer: reps divided between first and the outfield.

Then there's his hitting, of course. Jones describes himself as a right-handed gap hitter; an aggressive swinger with occasional power, though he is quick to note that he doesn't go up to the plate trying to hit home runs.

"I'm just trying to put the bat on the ball and find that sweet spot," he says.

But Valarezo says he can envision Jones hitting for power and agrees with Jones in his assessment that he's an aggressive hitter.

"I don't mean to say he's going to hit 20 (bombs) next year in A-ball," said Valarezo. "I'm not that good, but my gut tells me that he's going to be able to hit for some power.

"He's a strong athletic guy. If you look at him and you're standing right next to him, (you go), ‘This guy is strong.' And as far as hitting skills, he's aggressive and he attacks pitches. At the same time, he sees the ball good and he'll go up there knowing what he's looking for and he'll attack it."

So how is it that a player like Jones slipped to the 20th round? Valarezo points to the simple unpredictability of the draft and the amount of outfielders that are annually draft eligible.

"You just never know," Valarezo says. "All I know is he was one of the better outfielders in the southern part of the country: Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. As far as ability, he was a young junior, 20 years old. He had a good track record. He'd been productive there. He can play right field, he can throw, runs well, he's got power. He profiles for that position.

"For me, I don't know where that goes in the draft. I just know that if you get a chance, you better take a guy like that, whether it be in the 20th round or the 10th round.

"For him to get taken in the 20th round, one of 1,500 guys selected and one of 50 guys selected by the Chicago Cubs, I think he had a pretty good day."

It is indeed quite early in Jones' professional career, but perhaps the best days for him are the ones ahead.

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