When Travis Jones was selected in the 50th round of the 2008 draft, he was perhaps best known as the player who once beat Eric Hosmer in a showcase home run derby. While he has always possessed above average raw power, the young catcher struggled through his first few seasons of professional baseball.
After being lured away from a commitment to the University of Arizona with a $100,000 signing bonus, Jones began his professional career with the Arizona Royals, appearing in just five games with the club while finishing 3-for-16 (.188). The following summer, he played for the Burlington Royals, but he was a bit overwhelmed by Appalachian League pitching. On the season, the then 20-year-old hit just .144/.222/.233 with two home runs in 146 at bats.
In addition to his offense, his defense behind the plate was also a concern. Appy League opponents ran at will against the young backstop, swiping 42 bases in 50 attempts, and he committed six passed balls in just 24 games.
Jones started to turn a corner last season, however. Playing for the more advanced Idaho Fall Chukars, the Tucson native rebounded from his disappointing 2009 campaign by hitting a very respectable .284/.340/.397 with three home runs in 141 at bats. Equally encouraging was his defensive improvement, particularly with regard to the running game. While passed balls were still a concern (he committed 10 in 30 games), Jones threw out a very solid 40 percent of attempted basestealers (25 in 63 attempts).
This season, Jones was assigned to the Kane County Cougars out of spring training, his first extended full season assignment (he spent four games with the Wilmington Blue Rocks in 2010). He got off to a slow start, going just 3-for-35 (.086) in his first 11 games. Since that slump, however, Jones has hit .296 with four home runs and four doubles in 108 at bats. Over his last 20 games with Kane County, the 22-year-old hit .328. His overall numbers -- .245/.316/.364 -- don't look terribly impressive, but he's been a solid offensive player for the last two months in a league that's traditionally tough on hitters.
Furthermore, Jones' defense has continued to improve. In 44 games behind the plate for the Cougars, he committed just one passed ball while cutting down 33 percent of attempted basestealers. On a recent trip to see the Cougars, we noticed that Jones looked a lot more athletic behind the plate, a vast improvement over the catcher we saw struggle in the Appalachian League in 2009.
"I would say really of all our players over the last year, Travis has made the most strides," said Cougars manager Vance Wilson in a recent interview with Royals Corner. "Defensively, he was really stiff. He's worked on that and he's freed up. He's blocking well, he's throwing the ball well. He's been really good and a nice surprise defensively."
Wilson also praised the young catcher's improvement behind the plate.
"Obviously offensively he's coming back around. He wasn't playing continuously in the first half, and now he's starting to play a little more, which is good for him," said Wilson.
All told, Jones' progress has been very encouraging. At the plate, he's drawing more walks, and he has cut his strikeout rate dramatically since that rough 2009 season. Among all the catchers in the organization, Jones has arguably the best power potential, and his defensive improvement gives him a much better chance of sticking at that position than once thought.
The Carolina League should be a challenge for Jones, and he may struggle for playing time behind starter Jose Bonilla while he's there. The assignment could be relatively short-term, but either way, Jones has turned himself into an interesting prospect to follow.
Improving Jones headed to Wilmington
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