They both spent significant time in the major leagues last season, an opportunity for which Stefen Romero and James Jones both say they are grateful.
Romero, who made the Seattle Mariners’ 25-man roster out of spring training in 2014, called that experience “a dream come true.”
Jones, who was called up for three separate stints in the big leagues and accumulated 328 plate appearances in 108 games, said his rookie season was “surreal.”
Now, both outfielders embark on a different quest as they begin the 2015 season with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers, who open Pacific Coast League play Thursday with the first game of a four-game series at El Paso (6:05 p.m.).
That is: trying to make it back to Seattle, and onto a roster now crowded with outfielders who were acquired during the offseason for specific, big-league purposes.
Jones, for instance, started 72 games for the Mariners last year, sliding into the leadoff spot after the club optioned Abraham Almonte to Tacoma in early May. The Mariners liked Jones for his glove in center field and his ability to steal bases, but he showed some early promise as a hitter, too, carrying a .295 batting average into July.
“It went by fast, thinking about it now,” said Jones, a fourth-round pick by the Mariners in the 2009 draft. “In the beginning, there was a lot of information, especially all the scouting reports and stuff like that, but over the course of the season, I learned how to use those to the best of my abilities to match it to what type of player I am. That was the biggest thing I took from it.”
But the Mariners traded for Austin Jackson, a proven center fielder, at the trade deadline later that month. And as Jones’ production dipped — he finished the season with a .279 on-base percentage and walked only 12 times, compared to 67 strikeouts — it became clear that Jackson would supplant him in center field for the foreseeable future.
Likewise, Romero didn’t figure to have much chance of playing his way onto the roster this spring. After shaking off an 0 for 16 start last spring to finish with a .304 average and earn a spot in Seattle as a promising right-handed bat, he hit just .192 in 190 plate appearances at the big-league level, struggling to adjust to the unfamiliar challenge of not playing every day.
He started pressing, concerned that going hitless might keep him out of the lineup the next few games.
“I felt kind of pressure to go out and try to get the job done every day that I’m playing,” Romero said last month at the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Arizona. “And if I don’t do well, 0 for 3, then I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get a hit my next time up.’ It kind of builds a little bit of pressure on your shoulders. But I really valued that last year. I really gained some knowledge and experience, I guess, how to cope with that kind of position and role.”
But when the Mariners traded for outfielders Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano to shore up right field, then signed veteran Rickie Weeks to play the outfield, it became apparent that Romero would have to play his way back to the big leagues through Tacoma.
He had success there in 2014, batting .358 with 12 home runs in just 36 games.
“When you have a really good ballclub like we do this year, it’s harder to make the team,” said Romero, a 26-year-old who played in college at Oregon State. “We just want to push each other, push the other outfielders to be better and just have a little competition within camp.”
Likewise, Jones, a 26-year-old who hit .282 in 37 games with Tacoma last season, seemed to have a positive attitude regarding the outfield dilemma before him.
“I feel like you’re not going to get better with no competition around you, someone to push you,” Jones said last month. “And the guys they brought in, they have a lot of experience and I just want to pick their brains, too, because they’ve been there longer than I’ve been, so I’m excited about it.”
The goal this season, Romero said, is to “just be competitive when you’re in the lineup, just compete and show everyone that you want to go out and play and compete, and ultimately you just want to get better every day.”