- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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On the morning of Opening Day, with many duties ahead of him, Orioles manager Dave Trembley stuck his head out of his office to say hello to a writer, then volunteered the following: "Adam Jones will be the most improved player in the American League this year."
Such a proclamation comes as no surprise given that Jones has been considered one of the game's top prospects for several years. The surprise is that it has come this quickly. At this time last year, Trembley said he was going to play Jones a lot in center field, but not against a particularly challenging right-hander, saying "Nothing good can come from failure." A year later, after a terrific spring training and a marvelous first series against the Yankees, Jones is scheduled to not just play every day, but to be one of the AL's best players.
"His pitch selection is so much better," Trembley said. "His knowledge of the strike zone is so much better. That is very difficult to improve for a young player, but he has great hand-eye coordination. And he is a great athlete. He is also a very, very smart young man."
Jones, 23, looks like a baseball player, and he has an Eric Davis-type body, but bigger. He has power, speed and instincts that are well developed for a guy who didn't play baseball until he was 12 years old. Until then, he was a basketball player and a football wide receiver/defensive back/punter.
"I tell [Orioles pitcher Mark] Hendrickson [a former NBA player] that I will dunk on him," Jones said, "and he's not believing that for one second."
It's that hand-eye coordination, that athleticism and a relentless offseason conditioning program that made Jones into a better hitter this spring, when he batted .373 with five homers and 15 RBIs. In the first two games of the season against the Yankees, he went 4-for-6 with three RBIs, four runs scored, a double, a triple and two walks. On Monday, he became the first Orioles player ever to reach base five times without making an out on Opening Day.
"I know now that I don't have to cheat," Jones said, meaning he doesn't have to commit his swing early to catch up to the fastball. "The other day [Opening Day], I was down 0-2 [in the count] against [Yankees reliever Brian] Bruney, who was throwing 98-99 mph, but I didn't have to cheat. I'm confident now that I'm quick enough, I'm strong enough and my eyes are good enough that I can see the pitch and I can wait. I trust my hands. I know I'm not going to get blown away up there consistently once in a while, but not three pitches in a row."
Last year, he occasionally would get overpowered at the plate, but he steadily got better as the season progressed, and wound up hitting .270 with nine homers and 10 steals. This winter, he lifted religiously.
"I'm 225 [pounds] now [up from 215] with 9 percent body fat," Jones said. To which, Orioles reliever Dennis Sarfate said with a laugh, "I'm not hearing this. I am not hearing this." Jones weighed 178 pounds when he was drafted by the Mariners as a shortstop in the first round in 2003. Now he is 47 pounds heavier, but can still really run. And, thanks in part to his training as a shortstop, he can play center field really well. On Wednesday night, he made a great running catch in left-center field.
"I'm always trying to get better," Jones said. "That is my goal every year."
[Adam Jones'] pitch selection is so much better. His knowledge of the strike zone is so much better. That is very difficult to improve for a young player, but he has great hand-eye coordination. And he is a great athlete. He is also a very, very smart young man.
”-- Orioles manager Dave Trembley
On Jones' statistical page on ESPN.com, his eyes are closed in the picture. His eyes and ears, however, always seem to open. Last spring -- Jones' first in Baltimore after being acquired from Seattle in the Erik Bedard trade -- Orioles first base coach John Shelby, a former speedy center fielder, was asked about Jones. The first thing Shelby said was: "He listens."
A lot of young players today aren't interested in doing that. Many of them are so spectacularly talented they don't feel the need to learn. Not Jones.
"[Former Mariners outfielder] Jay Buhner came up to me my first spring and said, 'Shut up and listen,' then he walked out of the room," Jones said. "John [Shelby] had nine years in the big leagues. Crow [hitting coach Terry Crowley] has been in baseball for like 50 years. They had finished good careers before I was even born. Why not listen? I'm a sponge for these coaches."
Crowley said when Jones came to the Orioles last year, "he was a little fidgety in the box. He had a quick bat, but his swing was a little long. We tried to make him more comfortable in the box, a little quieter in his approach. He absorbed all the knowledge that we could send his way. He sucked it up. To his credit, he's one of the smartest guys I've ever been around."
There is a long way to go this season, and much more improvement to be made. But Jones appears to be on his way. After the national anthem before every game, he will tap his left shoulder, which bears tattoos of his mother and his grandmother, whom he calls "the two most important women in my life. And after every home run, I tap my left shoulder."
Look for a lot of tapping this year, and for many, many years to come.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.