Justin Leone: Rising Star

Nobody has improved their stock more since the start of the 2003 season than Tacoma's Justin Leone. After struggling for his first four professional seasons, the 27-year-old burst on the scene last year at San Antonio. He's back at it with the Rainiers this season, leading the organization with 15 homers. InsidethePark's Sean Duade sat down with Leone prior to Friday night's game at Cheney Stadium, and brings you this exclusive feature.

The last time Justin Leone was in the south Puget Sound area before making his way to Triple-A this season with Tacoma, it was 1999 and he was pounding balls at St. Martin's College in Lacey, Wash. just 30 miles down Interstate-5. Now, five long years later, Leone is back in the Pacific Northwest and swinging the bat like he did in college. Through June 5, the slugging third baseman leads the Mariners organization with 15 home runs.

Leone's road to Tacoma came only after a shaky start to his professional career. Upon graduating from St. Martin's in 1999, the Las Vegas resident was selected by Seattle in the 13th round of the June draft. Shortly thereafter, he got his start in the farm system with Everett.

Leone batted a respectable .263 in his first season with the Aqua Sox in 1999, but failed to build off of it. He hit .267 the following year at Wisconsin, and in two years at San Bernardino he batted a mere .233 (2001) and .244 (2002).

Just when it looked like the end could be near, Leone turned the corner at Double-A San Antonio last season, taking advantage of every ounce of opportunity thrown his way.

Once starting third baseman Greg Dobbs went down in the opening week of 2003 with a season-ending Achilles heal injury, Leone, who was slated to be a reserve utility player on the Missions, took his spot.

Playing for the first time in Double-A, Leone excelled in the Texas League, posting career highs in every single statistical category except at bats. In a 135 games, he belted 21 homers, had 92 RBI, 38 doubles, and swiped 20 bags for good measure, running away with the 2003 Texas League MVP in the process. His incredible against-the-odds season also earned him the Mariners Minor League Player of the Year honors.

Heading into 2004, the once little known player has blossomed into one of the organization's premier power hitters, and proven his worth both at third base and left field while with the Rainiers this season. He says he takes the renewed lofty expectations placed on him by the media and general public in stride.

"There are expectations put on me," said Leone, now 27. "I think there always has been. Everybody has always said I have the tools to do what it takes to get up [to the big leagues] and play up there for a while."

While he admits feeling pressure from the outside forces, he says he feels it more from his own passion to succeed and excel.

"I put pressure on myself, and when I struggle that's the reason why, because I put so much pressure on myself," he said. "I expect to do much and try to do too much… and it's all me, it's all in my head, it's all up to me what I do. It has nothing to do with anybody else."

If Leone has felt the pressure, it hasn't shown much this season after a rough start down at spring training, where he went hitless while in camp with the big league club. As a Rainier, he has put up stellar numbers thus far, the only exception coming with his high strikeout total of 50. Aside from that, he enters June 6 batting .272 with 31 RBI to go with his 15 homers. He also leads the team in runs with 37.

"I'm not completely satisfied," Leone said. "But we're winning right now, and I'm happy with the baseball club that we've got."

Winning, they are. The Rainiers (28-23) have led the Pacific Coast League's Northern Division for over a month now despite a makeshift rotation and currently sport a four-game lead over Portland.

But on matters regarding his plate appearances, Leone is relentless on critiquing himself.

"I've missed a lot of opportunities with runners in scoring position," he said, shaking his head. "I should be producing more RBI. I know I'm capable of doing much more than I'm doing right now."

And maybe he's right. Leone has whiffed 50 times - second most on the ball club - while only being awarded 14 free passes.

But then again it is his first year in Triple-A, and his high strikeout-to-walk ratio may be due to the advanced level of play from Double-A.

"They throw different pitches in 2-0 and 3-1 counts in Double-A," Leone said. "But that's not the biggest issue, with two strikes you've got to be a better hitter here. They have that big time out-pitch here, more than they do in Double-A. Pitchers throw a lot of first pitch strikes, because they want to get ahead."

Leone is starting to catch on to what the Triple-A hurlers are dealing. Heading into Saturday's play, the third baseman has had seven hits in his last 15 at bats, raising his average 22 points in the process. He's hitting the ball as hard as anyone in the PCL, and abusing pitches much like he did in his college days five years ago.

The next step is Seattle, Safeco Field and the stuff that dreams are made of. For Leone, it's only a matter of time, and nobody knows that better than he himself.

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