Name: Zach Cone
DOB: December 14, 1989
Acquired: 2011 Amateur Draft, supplemental 1st round (#37 overall)
The Texas Rangers took a bit of a risk with their supplemental first-round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, choosing raw tools and upside over a more polished––likely lower ceiling––prospect. The club selected University of Georgia outfielder Zach Cone and eventually signed him for a reported $873,000 bonus.
Entering the 2011 college season, Cone appeared primed to become a first-round selection. He was coming off an excellent season with the Bulldogs in which he posted a .363/.411/.627 slash line with 12 doubles, seven triples and 10 home runs in 53 games.
But Cone's stock dropped after a difficult junior season. He had trouble offensively––hitting just .275/.331/.385––and was involved in an early-season outfield collision with teammate and friend Johnathan Taylor. The nasty collision left Taylor paralyzed. Cone escaped with only a minor concussion.
"I had a tough college year," Cone said last summer. "There was a lot of stuff I had to deal with on and off the field. It was tough. It has just been good to get away from it all and almost get a new start––learn new things with new coaches."
The Rangers made a gesture to Cone by selecting Taylor with their 33rd-round pick in last year's draft. The two appeared together at a Turner Field press conference, where the Rangers announced they'd signed Cone to his first professional contract.
Taylor wasn't able to sign with the Rangers because he wanted to keep working with the Georgia baseball team this season.
Either way, Cone was touched by the gesture.
"It meant a lot to me," he said of the Rangers drafting Taylor. "Me, JT, my family, his family––it was a big day for everyone. It was almost more exciting to see him get drafted than me. He's like my brother, so it was cool."
Cone remained in contact with Taylor while he was across the country last summer, making his professional debut in Spokane.
"Yeah, we text every now and then," he said. "The time change makes it hard to get to him, but for the most part he'll send me a text and I send one the next day. We stay in touch."
Because Cone finished his debut summer with a disappointing .201/.278/.339 line, it's easy to forget that he started the season strong. Through his first 23 games, Cone was hitting .316/.387/.495 with nine doubles, a triple and two home runs. But his long season––in addition to the issues with his swing and approach––appeared to take a toll after awhile. He struggled throughout the remainder of the summer and, during one particularly rough spell, went just 2-for-56 over a 16-game stretch.
One scout commented that, when Cone was hot, he was "one of the more impressive players" the scout had seen all season. But the slump certainly tempered the excitement.
Rangers' roving hitting coach Luis Ortiz realizes there's plenty of work for Cone to do, but he's also excited about working with Cone's raw talent.
"Zach is a great athlete," Ortiz said. "There is such a good tool package that you can do so much with. It's just a matter of some things that he got away with. He is very good as far as taking the barrel to the ball. There are some issues with the legs.
"I think if we can synchronize that––with the good swing path that he has––I think he could be pretty special. But it's just a matter of getting away with being more talented and stronger than everybody else around. And we're trying to clean that up and make him more consistent."
Cone recognizes that he'll need to do a better job of staying back and getting his entire body involved in his swing.
"I'm just doing little things like getting my whole body into it," said Cone when asked about what he's working on. "With aluminum, I could muscle a ball and get away with a cheap hit. Now I can't do that. It's the little things to help me out.
"I'm mainly working my back side––getting my back leg into it and everything. I would use my arms a little bit with aluminum, and you can't really get away with that here."
While Cone will have to work on developing his mechanics at the plate as he develops, Ortiz says that the prospect must also work to improve his pitch recognition.
"It's a matter of teaching him to recognize pitches better and not to swing at pitches that are maybe a little more of a pitcher's pitch––those that get him out," said the hitting coach. "Most of those times, he's getting himself out instead of the pitcher getting him out.
"If he's able to lay off some of those pitches and maybe get into a better hitting count, then his power numbers will go up and the balls are going to be jumping off his bat a little better."
One aspect of Cone's game that Ortiz likes is the aggressive approach. According to the coach, Cone enters the box ready to hit.
"He's very aggressive," he said. "That's a good thing––that he goes there to hit. That's one thing that you have to teach most of the guys. You have to say, ‘Hey, come on. Let's go after it.' But you don't have to worry about that with him."
Cone's time with Spokane last season was marred by inconsistency. One hot streak was followed by one very long slump. As he looks forward to his first full professional season in 2012, he just wants to be more consistent.
"I just want to be a more consistent hitter––more consistent at the plate," the outfielder said. "I know I'm not going to get a hit every time, but a productive at-bat. I want to do anything to help."
Also See: Lone Star Dugout Q&A: Luis Ortiz (July 17, 2011)
Rangers All-Prospect Teams (November 8, 2011)
Batting and Power: While Cone is plenty raw offensively, he isn't short on tools, and the Rangers will have to mold him over the next couple years and hope he develops. The right-handed hitter has excellent bat speed with intriguing raw power. Both in college and at Spokane last summer, Cone was hitting off his front foot too often, cutting off much of his raw power and generally making it difficult to hit the ball with authority. He showed some improvement in terms of staying back after making a mechanical adjustment at instructs. Cone also must improve his pitch recognition. He's an aggressive hitter who has trouble recognizing breaking balls out of the pitcher's hand––part of what has him leaning out in his swing when he's fooled.
Base Running and Speed: Cone is a 60-grade (plus) runner who should be a consistent base stealing threat. He appears to have a strong feel for base running, as well. Although he wasn't on base often in Spokane last season, he stole 11 bags in 13 attempts over 62 contests.
Defense: The most refined aspect of Cone's game is his defense in the outfield, where he gets good reads and runs mature routes. He did well while playing as Spokane's everyday centerfielder last season. A premium athlete, the University of Georgia product has above-average speed that helps him cover solid ground in the outfield. His arm is about a 50 (average), if not a slight tick above. He should develop into a slightly above-average centerfielder with the ability to play both corners, though his arm strength may not be quite ideal for right field.
Projection: As a hitter, the 22-year-old is quite raw for a college product, but he also offers much more tools than the typical college outfielder. Cone has a strong and athletic 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, and he certainly looks the part of a major leaguer. Though he's a ways from actualizing his tools, he has the raw ability to become an everyday major league outfielder. The Rangers will have to be patient with him as he looks to develop his swing and approach. Even if Cone eventually does actualize the raw tools, he isn't likely to produce staggering numbers in his first full season.
2012 Outlook: Despite Cone's rough debut last summer, the Rangers will almost certainly push the three-year college product forward to full-season ball in 2012. He'll likely go to Single-A Hickory as the everyday centerfielder. Given his development needed offensively, it'd be a safe bet to say that Cone will spend the entire season in the South Atlantic League. But if he has success, he could earn a promotion to Myrtle Beach.
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