Returning Rockies ready to lead GJ
They were wide-eyed, baby-faced kids last summer when they joined the Grand Junction Rockies.
Fresh out of high school, Terry McClure and Wes Jones were only 17 years old when they signed their professional baseball contracts. Dom Nunez was all of 18.
All three arrived after the season started, and, as expected, had their ups and downs last summer.
One year later, they have a different look about them. They’re the only three players returning for a second year of rookie ball from last year’s squad, and they’re eager to show what they learned.
“They were babies last year, and this year they’re probably still babies,” Grand Junction manager Anthony Sanders said, laughing. “They’re probably the same age as some of the high school kids coming in now, but it’s amazing what a year can do for some of these kids. A year in spring training and extended (spring training), we’re really expecting to lean on those kids a lot.”
Nunez, who played infield last summer, will move behind the plate this summer, as was the plan when he was drafted out of high school in the sixth round last year. He’s put on 20-25 pounds since arriving in Grand Junction in 2013, the baby face is more mature, and he’s more confident in his game.
“I have to be very vocal and kind of grab the team and take them as mine,” he said of his role this summer with the young Rockies and catching the pitching staff, which is entirely new.
“You have to have respect from other players and the pitchers. In spring training and extended, they just kind of grabbed me, and the days I caught it was a great thing for them and me, and it showed on the scoreboard and the field.
“I just have a lot of confidence when I’m behind the plate. One of my biggest assets is leadership. When they talk about tools, I think leadership is one of my biggest tools as a baseball player. People talk about, ‘He’s really toolsy.’ I think my thing is, ‘He’s a baseball player.’ “
All three acknowledged they struggled at times adjusting to pro ball from high school. McClure had the best average of the three, hitting .254 in 41 games, with eight doubles and eight RBI. He stole 11 bases, something he wants to improve on this season, as well as cutting down his strikeouts — 59 in 134 at-bats.
“I was 17 years old coming in last year. I’m still young at 18, but I feel a little bit older, having a little bit of that experience,” McClure said. “That added a little bit of age on me. I feel more comfortable.”
An offseason of lifting weights has helped him fill out, but he’s still kept his speed, which will come in handy as he patrols center field. He laughed about the past two starting center fielders in Grand Junction setting the bar pretty high — David Dahl led the Pioneer League in hitting and was the league MVP in 2012. Raimel Tapia led the Pioneer League in hitting and was a league All-Star.
Dahl set a club record with a 27-game hitting streak; Tapia broke it by hitting in 29 consecutive games.
“Some big shoes to fill,” he said, laughing. “No pressure there. We call it knowing the ropes. I guess having that year, last season will help us establish a feeling of comfort from Day 1 instead of having to work your way into comfort. Having us three guys back will help lead this team to a championship.”
That’s McClure’s main goal: To win those playoff series the past two clubs couldn’t, and to win the franchise’s first Pioneer League title.
“Postseason is something we play for,” he said. “We’re not going to be a team that turns it on and off. We want to have it on all year, hopefully bring back to Grand Junction a championship.”
His speed could have him hitting high in the lineup, but he’s more concerned about production wherever he hits.
“Anthony will make the decision as to what’s best for me and what’s best for this team,” McClure said. “Whatever is fine with me.”
Although he won’t turn 19 until after this season ends, McClure said he’s ready to assume a leadership role, especially with the players from the Dominican Republic who are acclimating to life in the United States.
“Off-the-field activities are just as important as on the field,” he said. “Just being in a small town, this might be a big town for them. Not knowing simple things, like where to eat, means of entertainment. We’ll help those guys out a lot. They’re fun guys; they understand there are challenges ahead with the language barrier, and we’ll help them out as much as we can.”
Jones won’t turn 19 until August, and he said his first experience at spring training and extended spring training, playing every day after a winter of conditioning, has him ready for his first full season.
He hit .182 in only 23 games last season after signing. He was drafted in the 31st round out of Redan High School in Georgia and knew he was going to sign instead of going to college.
“I wanted to play pro ball,” he said, a wide grin on his face. “It’s every young kid’s dream.”
When he got to Grand Junction, that dream became reality.
“It was an eye-opener, a learning experience,” he said. “I’m more settled, and you know what’s going to happen.
“As far as the team, I want to win and just get better every day, just keep working and grinding. We have a lot of new guys here, and we jelled with them over spring training and extended, and hopefully we can take that into the season.”
He, too, got bigger during the offseason, something Sanders noticed in all three returnees.
“The first thing I noticed when I saw them in spring training is what they did in the weight room,” the second-year skipper said.
Like McClure, Jones has good speed, and he hopes to turn that loose a little bit this season, taking extra bases.
“I got a little bit bigger, and I want to run a little bit more,” he said. “Trust my speed. I want to steal some bags and hit, hit, hit, hit, hit. Just keep hitting.”
Nunez, who hit. .200 in 55 games, had 13 doubles, three home runs and drove in 23 runs last season. When he wasn’t playing infield, he spent the latter part of the season as the Rockies’ bullpen catcher.
The biggest thing the three learned last year will serve them well this season.
“The number one thing I learned was how to fail,” Nunez said. “I failed for a good amount of time, and now I know when things start going bad for me, I know how to get a hold of it and transition it back to the positives.
“Last year I think I showed a lot of maturity. I struggled a lot, but I didn’t really take it out on anything. Learning from other players, being a young kid, I just try to be a sponge and learn as much as possible.”
Spoken like a veteran.
“I’m 19,” he said with a grin. “I’m the old man of the three bucks.”