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Jones relishing opportunity to be part of camp

Young outfielder drawing attention during first big league camp

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When James Jones sits at his locker in the shiny new Spring Training facility of the Mariners, he looks straight across at a fellow named Felix Hernandez.

To his right, another 15 feet away, resides Robinson Cano. That's $415 million worth of baseball talent -- two of the top 11 paid players in the history of the game -- hanging out within earshot of the young outfielder who just got his first sniff of Triple-A ball with a four-game promotion at the end of last season.

Now three weeks into his first Major League camp, Jones still grins at the thought of his new neighbors.

"The first few days of camp I was kind of still in awe," admitted the 25-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y. "These guys are at the top of the game right now in baseball. But I'm getting used to it, just seeing how they go about their business, because they're doing something right."

Jones isn't ranked among the Mariners top prospects on most lists, most likely because he's older than the majority of the "upside" kids who fall in those categories. But the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder has caught manager Lloyd McClendon's eye this spring, and has come a long way from his days at Long Island University, where he was a pitcher and outfielder before being drafted by Seattle in the fourth round in 2009.

"He's a pretty interesting young man. He's very talented and I really like what I've seen," McClendon said. "I don't think he's going to knock on the door, I think he's going to knock the door down when he's ready to get there."

Jones hit .275 with 14 doubles, 10 triples, six homers and 28 stolen bases in 101 games for Double-A Jackson last season, despite a month on the disabled list with a strained triceps. He'll likely start this season in Tacoma, where he went 5-for-15 with two doubles in his four-game callup in the final days of 2013, but the Mariners have him on their 40-man roster, and he's certainly on McClendon's radar now.

"I think he needs the reps and continue to get better," said the new skipper. "I think he's going to come on very, very quick."

Jones has impacted several Cactus League games already this spring with his bat and legs, including getting a hit, scoring two runs and stealing a base in Thursday's 7-4 victory over the White Sox. . He's played in seven of the team's nine games this spring and taken advantage of the opportunity by hitting .375 (6-for-16) with a home run, five runs, four RBIs and a stolen base.

In Tuesday's 4-1 win over the Dodgers, he displayed the speed threat that McClendon loves by hitting a single, drawing a wild throw to first from veteran reliever Jamey Wright that allowed him to scoot into third base, then scoring on Cano's single.

"It's definitely fun to contribute to the team and just bring the energy out there," Jones said. "I just love playing, and I'm going to try to bring energy every day."

Not everything has gone perfectly -- he misread a ground ball in the Dodgers game and got picked off third base, and he had some adventures in a tough sun while playing center field in Wednesday's 8-5 loss to the Indians.

But it's all part of the learning curve for a young man who was recruited only by Long Island University coming out of the High School of Telecommunications in Brooklyn and spent his first four years in the Mariners system learning the game in Class A ball.

Growing up as a baseball player in New York City is an interesting experience. Jones said playing the outfield for Long Island University wasn't easy because on high flies, the ball would blend into the backdrop of the buildings behind the stadium.

Thus, while many outfielders grumble about the tough blue sky and bright sun in Cactus League games in Arizona, Jones has seen worse.

"I'd go with the blue skies because sometimes [on Long Island] you get glare off those windows and it gets real tough," he said.

Jones is one of several youngsters benefitting greatly from the teachings of new outfield coach Andy Van Slyke, who has challenged his group from Day 1 of camp with a series of aggressive drills that require tracking ball after ball up against the wall or over the head or with a coach flipping flash cards in front of them that require looking down and then back up to find the ball again.

"He's a really good outfield coach," Jones said. "I like what he says about practicing hard so in the game, it slows up for you. He's definitely doing that. I feel more comfortable in center field with all the drills he's been doing, running back on the ball, taking my eye off of it. I'm just taking everything in with him. I'm listening."

It's the same approach he's using in the clubhouse as well. Having one of the best left-handed hitters in the game to watch and learn from is a situation he's not taking for granted.

"I haven't picked his brain yet," Jones said of Cano, "but I've been watching his swing, watching his approach. You definitely see there's a purpose with every swing, even in the cages.

"His swing is very pleasing to the eye. He makes it look so easy. It's effortless. He's like a real handsy guy. You can see his approach in batting practice, he's working to all the fields, not just pulling everything. I'm just looking and watching."

And he'll keep employing that eyes-wide-open approach as long as they let him this spring.

"I love it so far," Jones said. "I'm just going to take everything in, keep learning and be a sponge out there."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

Seattle Mariners, James Jones