Patience Pays

<b>Jon Nelson's</b> voice thunders down like an avalanche on the mountain slopes of his native Utah, but the words come out as pristine as the morning snow. A devout Mormon, the 6-foot-5 monster of a man is one of the most down-to-earth athletes you'll ever talk to. While imposing in stature, he doesn't have a problem coming down to the level of those around him in every day life.

Six years ago, Nelson, a 24-year-old infielder-turned-outfielder who starred at High-A Inland Empire last season, put that on display. It was in 1998 that he began a two-year Mormon mission in Miami, Florida, working with Cubans and forfeiting the chance to get a jump-start on a professional baseball career.

He returned to Utah in 2000, enrolled at Dixie College, and headed back to the baseball diamond he had left behind. In 2001, the Mariners drafted Nelson, then 21, in the 26th round of the amateur draft. Finally, the man more concerned about those around him got his opportunity to focus on himself. And he did what any warm-blooded American would do – he signed on the dotted line and began a trip towards his dream of one day playing in the big leagues.

Nelson played first base in each of his first two pro seasons – at Everett in 2002 and Wisconsin in 2003 – and never fully got on track offensively. While showcasing tremendous power, he batted just .234 with the AquaSox and .264 with the Timber Rattlers a year later.

Then came this past season, the stuff that dreams are made of, an incredible burst-upon-the-scene, "Hi, my name is Jon Nelson and I'm officially a prospect" kind of year. At Inland Empire, the Mariners' California League affiliate based out of San Bernardino, Calif., Nelson moved to left field and established career highs in all the major offensive categories. He busted out with a .303 batting average, belted 19 home runs, drove in 95 runs, and even stole 26 bases.

"He was the second fastest guy on the team," said Michael Garciaparra, a 66ers' middle-infielder. The speed-burner Gary Harris was undeniably the team's fastest player and top base-stealer. "Catchers on the other team always were surprised when he ran, even though they knew he was fast."

Nelson, a rare player with a wide range of tools, especially the speed-power combination, put himself on the proverbial map with the stellar season. And surprisingly, he credits much of the success to the move to the outfield.

"I had a lot of fun out there and felt really comfortable," Nelson said recently in an over-the-phone interview with InsidethePark. "I think the combo of being out there and having fun helped me offensively, too. It took a little bit of pressure or stress off me in the infield."

Some added concentration at the plate helped as well.

"Our hitting coordinator has told me since I signed that you have to recognize the pitches, you've got to recognize spin," said Nelson. "This last year it started to click with me, that the faster you pick up spin on the ball the more prepared you're going to be.

"That's one of the things that I was able to do a little bit better this year was recognize pitches and the spin on the ball. I was able to lay off more pitches this year than I was able to in the past, and I think that's what helped me minimize the slumps that happened."

While open to the idea of returning to first base in the future – a position quite possibly the thinnest depth-wise in the Mariners' minor league system – Nelson hopes to get a longer look in the outfield in 2005. In fact, it's one of the main reasons why he can't wait to get back out on the field.

"I would definitely like to see some more time defensively in the outfield and continue to get better out there," said Nelson. "I'm excited about continuing to progress defensively."

Wherever he ends up in the field next season, chances are good it'll be somewhere in San Antonio, home of the Mariners' Double-A affiliate. Once the season begins, he thinks the chances are good he'll be able to build on all he learned while at Inland.

"This was the first year that I really ran, and paid attention to the tendency of pitchers," said the outfielder. "Henry Cotto helped me out a lot at first base as far as things to look for. I played around with it, and got a feel for it."

Nelson also credited strength and conditioning coach James Clifford, a former linebacker at the University of Washington, with his improved agility and base-stealing abilities.

"Offensively, I'm ready to get a whole lot more at bats and continue to see how pitchers work at the next level," Nelson continued. "My big thing is that I'm excited to see more pitches."

For now, though, the offseason is in full swing. For those not playing winter ball, like Nelson, spring training remains off in the distance some four-to-five months away.

That doesn't mean Nelson has put his bat away.

"I haven't put my bat in the cupboard. That'd be like asking water to go uphill," said Nelson, stressing how much he loves the game. "I'm taking swings and working on some mechanical things with my swing."

Nelson says he plans on moving to a place somewhere near the Mariners' spring complex in Peoria, Ariz. and getting a head start on next season. After all, just because nice guys often finish last doesn't mean they can't start first.

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