- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

BALTIMORE | Adam Jones’ vast potential was evident immediately.

A first-round pick of the Seattle Mariners, he cracked Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list in 2006 and was Seattle’s top-rated minor leaguer the next year when he hit .314 with 25 home runs at Seattle’s Class AAA affiliate. It appeared to be only a matter of time before the center fielder blossomed into one of the best players in the game.

What few expected was how quickly that time would come.

Just 23 years old and in the midst of his second full year in the majors, Jones is having a breakout season. His reward is a trip to St. Louis to represent the Baltimore Orioles in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game.

“None of it has sunk in yet,” Jones said. “I’ve always wanted to go - everyone wants to be in the class of the elite.”

Jones’ emergence has caught the attention of peers like Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells.

“His tools are kind of off the charts in every facet of the game,” said Wells, a two-time All Star. “He’s a unique athlete because he can do so many different things.”

Jones headlined the five-player haul Baltimore received in the Erik Bedard trade before last season. Seattle called up Jones for a couple of extended stays in the second half of 2006 and 2007, but he played sporadically and came off the bench in close to half of his games.

Since arriving in Baltimore, Jones has been a fixture in the starting lineup as the everyday center fielder. A chance to play regularly is one of the major reasons for his rapid development, especially because Jones was initially a shortstop and only switched to the outfield three years ago.

“[It’s] just the confidence of being the guy that the organization says, ‘Hey, you’re going to be our statue in center field. Go for it,’ ” said Toronto first baseman Kevin Millar, who played with the Orioles last season. “That means a lot.”

This is the second straight year Baltimore’s lone All-Star came from the group acquired for Bedard. Last season, closer George Sherrill earned a spot on the American League team after compiling 28 saves in the first half.

Being traded made Sherrill more determined to prove himself, and it might be having the same effect on Jones.

“Maybe it’s lighting a little fire under us,” Sherrill said. “It’s definitely a little extra motivation to go out there and show people what I can do and for him to show people what he can do.”

Another boost came from where Jones is hitting. He usually batted seventh or eighth last season, but his name has almost always been written in the second spot this year.

With Brian Roberts hitting before him and Nick Markakis after him, Jones has more RBI opportunities and better lineup protection.

“Hitting in front of Markakis and behind B-Rob - there’s really nothing better because those two dudes are tremendous players,” Jones said.

Jones got off to a torrid start, hitting his ninth home run in mid-May to match last season’s total, but recently his power production began to drop off. He has gone deep just once since May 27, with no extra-base hits this month.

But the recent slump isn’t cause for concern, Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora said.

“I’m always telling him to don’t worry about homers, because homers come easy with the swing,” Mora said. “Without realizing it, you’re going to have 20.”

Perhaps just as notable as the spikes in Jones’ batting average and power numbers has been his improved plate discipline. Jones has almost equaled his walk total from a year ago, and he is doing a better job of laying off breaking balls that are down and away.

That patience has paid off. Jones has gotten ahead in the count and taken advantage when pitchers are forced to throw in the zone.

“He doesn’t chase as many bad balls as he did when he was too anxious when he was in his first year with us,” hitting coach Terry Crowley said. “He’s maturing.”

Crowley said he finds Jones to be one of his easiest pupils to work with and one of the fastest learners on the team. It’s a quality that has helped set Jones apart and adjust to the majors at such a young age.

That combination of top-notch talent and a strong work ethic is expected to make Jones a mainstay at future Midsummer Classics.

“He’s a smart player,” Crowley said. “When we do things in the batting tunnel, I don’t have to repeat myself. I say something once. He understands it and takes it right into the game. That’s a big plus when you get a blessed athlete like he is and the intelligence to go along with it.

“You’ve got yourself a heck of a ballplayer.”

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