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Virginia’s Jones Taking Big Strides

Connor Jones has been viewed as a potential first-round pick for a long time. In 2013, Jones ranked as the No. 34 prospect in the class, thanks to his projectable, athletic frame and starter traits. Early into his junior season at Virginia, it looks like Jones’ decision not to go pro out of high school may pay off. In our most recent rankings for 2016, Jones checks in as the No. 10 prospect in the class.

In 2013, a mid-30s draft selection would come with a bonus slot near $1.5 million; The 10th overall pick this year is expected to come with a bonus slot north of $3 million, meaning that Jones may have doubled his payout—in addition to receiving three years of sound development at Virginia.

When Jones first donned the blue and orange for the Cavaliers in 2014, he was a very different pitcher than the one he is today. Back then, Jones showed off his intriguing fastball-slider combination and his impressive athleticism. He worked out of the bullpen as a freshman, then played a summer in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. Then, as a sophomore, Jones ascended into Virginia’s rotation, and started to cement himself as a first-round pick.

Jones saw many challenges during his sophomore season. His young team had to grow up quickly, and his team battled significant injuries all season long. Jones also was inconsistent, surrendering too many walks and sometimes marring otherwise excellent outings with one poor inning. Now, it appears that Jones has turned a corner.

On Friday night against Duke, Jones dominated, allowing no runs, seven hits and no walks over eight innings. After walking 52 batters in 115 2/3 innings last season, Jones has given up just six free passes in 27 1/3 innings so far this season, reducing his walk rate from four batters per nine innings to just under two.

“That was no doubt my goal for the offseason,” Jones said. Jones says that he’s focused on the mental aspect of his walk issues, rather than attributing his success to any one specific mechanical tweak.

Jones’ mechanics, however, have changed slightly over the years. Baseball America had eyes on Jones’ collegiate debut on Opening Day in 2014. There, the righthander had less meat on his bones, and more length to his arm action, with a plunge toward his back hip. The longer an arm swing is in the back, the more trouble a pitcher can have finding his arm slot consistently.

While Jones’ arm action was never quite long enough to cause significant concern, he has been able to shorten up. On Friday night, he showed off about as short of an arm action as he possibly could, and he hit his spots consistently throughout the night.

Jones ranks high in the draft rankings because he has a good chance of becoming a major league starter. He has a clean delivery that he repeats pretty well, and the athleticism to continue improving his repetition. On Friday night, he showed the ability to pitch with a plus fastball—once reaching 95 mph—and hold velocity well—his final—and 108th—pitch of the night checked in at 92. His fastball also shows late sinking action, especially when he throws it to his arm side. Jones also has very good offspeed stuff.

Jones has shown flashes of a plus slider since high school, and on Friday night those flashes continued to shine, though the pitch was probably closer to average than it was plus. While it often showed late darting action and horizontal sweep, Jones’ slider sometimes showed more length to its break, and he sometimes threw it with an earlier, more deliberate release point. Still, the consistently tight spin and break away from righthanded hitters would indicate that it is at least a present average pitch.

The righthander has a third offering with potential in his wicked splitter, an upper 80s offering that showed late diving action on Friday night. Jones saved the splitter for most of the game, then unleashed it against lefthanders as he began to run through the lineup for the third time. The pitch has late movement, and could be an effective ground ball pitch for Jones at any level.

Jones has outstanding stuff across the board, and he showed the ability to command the bottom of the strike zone with all three pitches on Friday night. All three of his pitches can compete for strikes within the zone, and all three of his pitches can be extremely difficult for hitters to do damage with.

While Jones may not have the ceilings of the pitchers in this draft class currently ranked ahead of him—Jason Groome (No. 1), Riley Pint (No. 4), A.J. Puk (No. 6) and Alec Hansen (No. 9)—he might be the safest bet of that group to land in a big league rotation.

Jones has stuff, improved command, and a detailed track record that includes over four years of improvement. If he continues pitching the way he has early on, Jones should be among the top players taken in this June’s draft.

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