James Jones isn't the type to hold a grudge.
Soft-spoken but jovial, a confessed prankster who seemingly always sports a bright smile, Jones is not consumed by a burning desire to stick it to all of the college coaches and pro scouts who overlooked him coming out of Brooklyn's Telecommunications High three years ago.
That isn't to downplay Jones' drive. Since arriving at Long Island as a skinny, 140-pound freshman, Jones has added 54 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-3 frame. Through unwavering dedication to LIU's strength and conditioning program and a rigorous long-tossing regimen, the lefthander has increased his fastball velocity from the 83-85 mph range out of high school to 88-90 last spring to 91-93 over the summer in the Northwoods League, where he ranked as the No. 3 prospect and established himself as a legitimate candidate to go in the top two or three rounds of the 2009 draft. He even touched 95 mph on occasion over the summer and then regularly reached 94-95 mph in fall ball, as hordes of scouts looked on eagerly.
"I've never really experienced that before, especially all the [radar] guns behind the plate," Jones said. "That was the first time scouts ever showed interest in me. It was kind of an adjustment."
Long Island recruiting coordinator Craig Noto was turned on to Jones by his high school coach Eddie D'Alessio, a former scout with the Mariners and a key member of St. John's 1978 College World Series team. Noto first saw Jones when he was a sophomore first baseman who pitched only on occasion.
"I didn't know how good he'd wind up being, but I knew he was going to be a pretty good player," Noto said. "At that point, you saw his intellect on the field and his love for the game -- it was more that type of stuff than the physical stuff that stood out. He was always a real thin kid, but you saw the skill level was there. It was just a matter of time before the strength and experience got there."
Neither the strength nor the experience arrived while Jones was in high school. He finished his prep career with 80 innings under his belt, including 22 as a closer his senior year, which was hampered by a fractured bone in his foot. Jones flew under the radar at one of New York City's scantily scouted public schools, and the few scouts who saw him regarded him as a better prospect as a position player than as a pitcher.
Not surprisingly, Jones went undrafted in 2006. Much more surprisingly, he went nearly unrecruited by college coaches.
"Long Island was the only school interested, the only option I had," Jones said. "Only Stony Brook called for a visit, but by that time I was already committed to LIU."
It turned out to be a perfect fit for both Jones and the Blackbirds. With its location in Brooklyn, Long Island was close enough for Jones' family to come to his games (especially once the weather warmed up), and for Jones to stay involved with his local church.
The Blackbirds, meanwhile, got themselves a cornerstone player to build around as they get ready to move into a new $20 million multipurpose facility in May. And on the recruiting trail, Noto and head coach Don Maines can point to Jones as an example of a player who developed from an unknown into a top prospect.
The coaching staff's original plan with Jones his freshman year was to use him primarily at first base and out of the bullpen. He started all 50 games as a first baseman/DH, batting .299 with four home runs. However, the pitching plan crumbled as injuries eventually thrust him into the weekend rotation. He finished that season 2-6, 7.25 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 50 innings.
I didn't know how good he'd wind up being, but I knew he was going to be a pretty good player.
--Long Island recruiting coordinator Craig Noto on James Jones
Up until 2008, Jones was strictly a fastball-changeup pitcher, but he said he learned a slider from some teammates and started throwing it as a sophomore. He's still working on tightening the pitch, but an American League area scout said it shows good spin and two-plane depth at times, ranging from 78 mph to 84 mph. Jones also shows good feel for his changeup.
"He's a loose lefty who's going to be pretty good," another AL scout said. "He's their best player -- he plays first base to save his arm, but he's an above-average athlete. He could play center field."
Jones did play some center field as a sophomore, when he hit .309/.381/.452 with five homers. He used his plus speed to steal 19 bases in 23 attempts. And he started to become more consistent on the mound, improving to 4-4, 4.91 with 61 strikeouts and 29 walks in 51 innings.
Jones will continue to make an impact in all facets of the game in 2009: He'll play center field in midweek games and on Fridays, then pitch and DH in Saturday doubleheaders, then play first on Sundays. And while Noto said he thinks Jones could be a top-seven-rounds pick as a position player, his professional future is on the mound. The spike in fastball velocity is what really put Jones on the map last year. A long-toss fiend, Jones will stretch out to the 300-foot mark a couple of times per week to build arm strength.
"This summer in the Northwoods League, he stood at home plate and threw a ball over their center-field wall flat-footed, basically without warming up," Noto said. "His first week up there, he rolled his ankle. For the next month, he didn't play the field; he was only able to throw. That month of sitting there and concentrating on pitching, I think it really, really helped him from a growth standpoint."
Jones said he surprised himself with his velocity, but he also discovered that velocity alone wasn't enough to succeed against top competition.
"Anybody can hit a fastball; that's what I learned out there in the summer league," he said. "I need to keep hitters honest, and have more command of my pitches. I definitely want to focus on my off-speed stuff this year so I can have three plus pitches."
Always quick to smile, though, Jones admits he has other goals beyond his development as a pitcher and winning a Northeast Conference title.
"I want to have fun this year," he said. "I think sometimes a lot of guys are too uptight, and put too much pressure on themselves. I just try to have fun."
For more on college baseball, check out Baseball America.