DENVER -- Should left-handed-hitting Nolan Jones transfer his potential into Major League production, hockey’s loss will be the Rockies’ bonanza.
Jones’ opportunities in baseball resulted from a dream change.
Growing up near Philadelphia, Jones played mostly hockey. Days were spent competing at home with brother Peyton, who developed into a solid goaltender.
“I was actually a forward, which worked out perfectly because I could shoot on my brother all the time,” Nolan Jones said. “We had a cement basement. My parents wanted to finish it, but my brother and I were like, ‘This is our hockey rink. This is where the magic is gonna happen.’ We put our rollerblades on.
“And we had a batting cage in our backyard.”
Peyton Jones eventually starred at Penn State and signed with the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche. He spent two seasons between the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies and the American Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles, who play an hour north of Denver in Loveland, and he now plays for the Belfast Giants of the British Elite Ice Hockey League.
As for Nolan Jones, thank goodness for the backyard batting cage.
“I suffered a concussion my sophomore year of high school, which, unfortunately, wasn’t my first,” he said. “I was asked to take some time away from hockey. I wasn’t able to play my sophomore season.
“But I really got to put my focus all into baseball. I'd really never worked out my entire life, but I got to work out for baseball, spending the winter practicing for baseball. I wish I’d have gotten the opportunity to choose which sport I would play. But it worked out, and I’m happy with it.”
It worked out well enough that Cleveland took Jones in the second round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of Holy Ghost Prep in Philadelphia. The high school shortstop soon became a well-regarded defensive third baseman. However, the Guardians have a star at that position in José Ramírez -- hence, the need to add other positions.
Before earning his opportunity with Cleveland, Jones had to overcome a difficult 2021 during which his batting average dipped to.238, with 122 strikeouts in 407 plate appearances, in his first Triple-A season. Again, Jones turned a setback into a step forward.
“I wouldn’t say I was chasing any specific thing, such as launch angle,” said Jones, who entered the MLB Pipeline Rockies Top 30 at No. 11. “I was chasing my swing, trying to feel good. And it looked different every single day. It felt different every single day. I think 2020 [with no Minor League ball due to the COVID-19 pandemic] played a part in that, not having the at-bats. I was able to improve and be a good player in 2022.”
Jones broke in with the Guardians last year, batting .244 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 28 games. He spent most of the year at Triple-A Columbus, where his .276/.368/.463 slash line with nine home runs and 43 RBIs in 55 games earned him time with Cleveland.
Jones, who turns 25 on May 7, caught the eye of the Rockies, who sent prospect Juan Brito to Cleveland for him on Nov. 15. Originally an infielder, Jones added the outfield to his skill set last season. Jones, who has a Minor League option, will compete for the Opening Day roster and playing time at the infield and outfield corners. If the Rockies back off from a goal of acquiring left-handed hitting and concentrate on filling a pitching need, his prospects will increase.
Jones was on a European trip with his girlfriend, first to watch Peyton, then on to Spain -- when he learned of the trade.
His situation resembles the one in Cleveland, with an established third baseman in Ryan McMahon and much competition at other positions.
“Nolan's in that mix of guys,” manager Bud Black said. “He can play a little third. He can play the outfield. He can play some first. So there's some versatility there. He's got some power.
“Like all those guys, there's some things he's got to clean up, but he's got talent.”
The key for Jones will be putting the ball in play in the Majors. He trimmed strikeouts in Triple-A to 64 in 248 plate appearances, but in the Majors, he absorbed 31 Ks in 94 plate appearances.
“When I was traded over, a lot of people from the Rockies' organization reached out to me and welcomed me right away,” Jones said. “I am working out at the complex [in Scottsdale, Ariz.]. It’s an unbelievable opportunity to be around some awesome guys and be training with them.”