Crawdads Under Construction
Rangers' Cone, Matthews Learn To Adjust
HICKORY, N.C.—In the five drafts from 2008-12, teams selected a total of 24 amateurs from a Georgia high school or college in either the first or supplemental first rounds.
The Rangers selected two of those players in 2011, lefthander Kevin Matthews
and outfielder Zach Cone.
In fact, the two low Class A Hickory teammates were selected just four picks apart, Matthews with the final pick of the first round (33rd overall) and Cone with the fourth pick (37th) of the supplemental round.
While Matthews—an undersized lefthander out Richmond Hill High—and Cone—a hulking outfielder out of the University of Georgia—may not appear to have much in common aside from their home state, both players were praised for their athleticism. Matthews, listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, showcased his impressive athleticism to club officials before the draft by dunking a basketball. Cone stood out immediately, as the 6-foot-2, 205-pound outfielder's physicality and tools are atypical of most college players.
However, Matthews and Cone quickly learned that athleticism and amateur success do not always translate at the professional level. For example, Matthews debuted last season in the Rookie-level Arizona League, followed by a quick promotion to short-season Spokane. While he racked up 30 strikeouts in 29 innings, he also walked 18 batters, and the Rangers staff worked on altering some minor mechanical issues in fall instructional leagues.
"He had some issues with alignment which led to arm slot issues," Hickory pitching coach Storm Davis said. "If we can keep him in alignment that really helps."
The Rangers elected to keep Matthews in extended spring training before assigning him to low the Class A Hickory Crawdads (South Atlantic) in late May, as they felt he would benefit from experiencing life outside of their complex in Surprise, Ariz.
"I think we saw some workable pitches. Part of it was to get him out of Arizona," Rangers farm director Tim Purpura said. "We play night games in Arizona now, which is better, but it is still tough because there are no fans there and guys not only have to learn their craft but they also have to learn the lifestyle. The bus rides, staying in the hotels—the baseball life skills. He's a mature guy and he seems to be handling that stuff pretty well."
Matthews started the 2012 season, as he did in 2011, coming out of the bullpen. After four relief appearances, Matthews had built up his arm strength enough to make his first start of the year on June 17. Over three starts, Matthews had trouble consistently finding the strike zone, and he finished June with a 7.20 ERA and 16 walks in 15 innings.
"When you're 19 and you're in low-A ball you are adjusting," Davis said. "What we find with most of our guys is that what we work on sometimes doesn't transfer to the game full-time, and when it does it is better. He's aware of things we are working with and he is a good student and hard worker so that is going to help him."
One thing that Matthews has recently been working on is using his breaking ball earlier in counts. The mid-70s curveball is a true weapon that can miss bats, and Davis feels that it can help Matthews settle into the game if he is struggling to command the fastball.
"His breaking ball has good spin. It is tight," Davis said. "I think that it is a plus pitch that will work well for him down the road. A lot of times we use the breaking ball to help him get a feel for the fastball."
"I didn't really notice that until last time out, but when Storm came out and talked to me about it, it made sense," Matthews said. "If that is what I have to do to get command of my fastball then that is what I'll do."
While Matthews has lowered his ERA, posting a 3.67 in 22 July innings, he still walked more batters (24) than he has struck out (19) and is 2-2, 4.80 overall with 50 walks and 45 strikeouts in 51 innings. Matthews recognizes that he will need to improve his control and command in order to consistently succeed.
"When I walk people it seems like they'll score on a sacrifice fly because I walked the bases loaded," Matthews said. "The biggest thing for me will be just to throw strikes."
Despite his inconsistency, Matthews and those within the Rangers organization remain optimistic and see that he has made progress regardless of the results.
"He won't get it all this year and he probably won't get it all for most of next year, but I see him progressing and getting better," Davis said. "It is not just an every fifth day thing. I think a lot of young guys end up realizing that they have to put in the physical work, pay attention to the game, understand how they can get hitters out. It becomes an everyday job and the sooner they figure it out, the better it is for them, and he is getting there. He is not there yet but he's getting there."
Cone Embraces the Process
Cone came to pro ball off a disappointing junior season when he batted .283/.343/.382 and had scouts questioning his ability to recognize pitches and manage the strike zone. Undeterred, the Rangers were captivated with Cone's solid speed, range in center field, strength and raw power. However, he managed to hit just .201/.278/.339 in 224 at-bats in Spokane.
"Last year was hard. Coming off the college season and into short-season was different, playing every day," Cone said. "In college if you have a bad game you might be able to practice for a day or two and then go back out there. Here you have to drop it every day. It was a hard learning experience."
Despite striking out in just over 25 percent of his at-bats for Spokane (57 in 224 at-bats) and drawing just 16 walks, Cone stole 11 bases in 13 attempts and flashed some power when he managed to make contact with 15 doubles and four home runs. The Rangers were intrigued with the secondary skills and remained optimistic about Cone's future.
To start 2012 they assigned him to Hickory, where he has been able to continue working with hitting coach Josue Perez, the hitting coach at Spokane in 2011.
"Obviously he has a lot of potential. He has raw power as good as anybody," Perez said. "It is just a matter of teaching him how to hit and be a ballplayer. Right now it is just a matter of learning how to be a professional, how to steal bases, how to get the right jumps in the outfield, how to work the count, all the little things. If he puts the whole package together it is going to be really, really good."
Despite hitting four home runs, Cone struggled out of the gate, hitting .233/.280/.430 in April and striking out 25 times in 86 at-bats. He turned the corner in May, hitting .299/.358/.567 with five home runs in 97 at-bats, and continued his progress before bursitis in his Achilles tendon sidelined him for nearly a month. He hit .203 in July and was batting .256/.315/.450 overall.
"It happens with young kids," Perez said. "It is a matter of trusting their hands. We are teaching these kids how to hit and once we teach them how to hit they will see that they don't really have to muscle every ball to hit it out. He has been getting ready to hit better than he had in the past—a stronger position, a stronger base, stronger hands. He is not pushing off the backside as much as he used to.
"In the past when we had him, he was pushing off the backside but now we are getting to the point where he is balanced a lot better, and as a result he is using his hands a lot better. That's what we want—getting to that point where he continues to use the hands and be properly balanced so he can get to that power position consistently.
"Before he got injured he was really good. Now we are trying to get back into that timing—not necessarily anything mechanically, but sometimes it takes a little while to get that timing back."
Cone has also learned not to dwell on any setbacks, something that he feels will be beneficial down the road. "I think my ability to deal with failure has improved a lot—just letting it go and coming back the next day without harping on the day before is important," Cone said.
"I think he has handled it pretty good. I think he's been more up than down," Perez said. "It is not like up and then all the way down to rock bottom—it is like up and then a little down and then up and then a little down. We say hey, instead of going 0-for-10, let's go 2-for-10 and then in next 10 at bats maybe we go 4-for-10 or 5-for-10. We kind of cut it off in every ten at-bats, you know, regroup and reset."
While Cone was primarily a center fielder at Georgia, he has been seeing time at both corner outfield positions as well, as the Hickory roster also boasts two other athletic outfielders in 2012 Sally League all-star Chris Grayson and tools-laden 20-year-old Jordan Akins. Given the Rangers' deep farm system, Cone's defensive versatility and power potential should help his development.
Cone, for one, has relished his experiences within the Rangers organization and the friendly competition it brings. "It is awesome. I think that them being as good as they are makes me better," he said. "Everyone pushes each other. There's never a bad day, everybody comes in and we enjoy being around each other."
Cone's process-oriented mindset is one that can be seen throughout the Texas organization.
"If he hits .300 or .400—it is not about that right now," Perez said. "We want to see adjustments every day from the beginning of the season all the way to the end of the season. The power, the batting average, all that is going to come later in his career."