It's a bit of a dirty little secret. Baseball players will talk lovingly about their time and experience at each stop they make in the Minors. What they learned at a certain level. How it made them grow into becoming a better player. How it was necessary for development. How they'll always remember that time in City X.
Beneath the surface of all of that is one thing that goes unsaid. They don't want to be back.
A return to a level in the Minors, it means the organization believes the player has more to work on and hasn't quite shown he's ready to move on.
When Zach Cone, a Rangers first-round pick (37th overall) back in 2011, was told he was headed back to Class A Short Season Spokane for the first time in three seasons, there were two ways he could take it. He could either see it as a big blow to what once looked like a promising career, or he could view it as an opportunity to regain the form that made him a player who showed so much promise in years passed.
The account, so far, has been closer to the latter.
"Many accept this as a feeling of demotion when really it's another shot," said Spokane manager Tim Hulett. "He certainly hasn't been a negative to the team in that sense. ... He was ready to go from Day 1, and it's been a fairly easy transition back for him. What makes it so easy is that he understands the process and why he's here and what he needs to do."
When the Rangers took Cone out of the University of Georgia in 2011 with the compensation pick they received for losing Cliff Lee, they knew he had a speedy, athletic, defense-first profile. He was named to the SEC All-Defense Team as a junior and was named "fastest base runner" in the conference by Baseball America that season. However, his .275/.331/.385 slash line didn't necessarily indicate a hit tool that would translate well to the pro game, although it should have been good enough to let his speed and defense move him through the system.
When he made his pro debut in 2011, he managed just a .201 average over 62 games in his first trip to Spokane. In 2012, he broke out a bit with a .262/.326/.461 slash with 17 homers and 10 steals over 112 games with Class A Hickory and was set to carry that momentum forward at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach in 2013 before tearing his left Achilles tendon in his seventh Carolina League game. The injury forced him to miss the rest of the 2013 season.
Back with the Pelicans for the start of this season, Cone never amounted much of a hitting display. His average hit its peak at .226 on May 16, and that was followed by an anemic 6-for-56 (.107) run in his next 16 games. He played his last game for Myrtle Beach on June 7 -- his slash line remains .181/.263/.235 -- and was with Spokane eight days later.
Hulett was adamant that the Achilles injury and lost season haven't led directly to the early negative results this season, adding that you're more likely to see it take its toll on his speed which remains a positive tool. Rather, he sees it as much more of a mechanical issue.
"We're focusing a lot on the upper body with him," said the Spokane skipper. "We're trying to get him to spread out a little and use his hands more when he swings because he's got great hands. When he uses those to his advantage, the ball really jumps off the bat. Now if he can just slow the rest of his body down a bit, he'll really be able to take advantage of that."
The recovery has come in fits and starts for Cone. After starting 2-for-20 with eight strikeouts in his first six games, he was 9-for-31 (.290) with seven walks in his next 10 contests. But that run came to a crashing end with an 0-for-5 Wednesday night. As of Thursday, he's batting .196/.361/.357 with two homers, eight RBIs and two stolen bases in 17 games.
It's only been 17 games in the Northwest League, and that's an insufficient amount of time for the adjustments to take and for the rest of us to judge the results. If Cone's hands are indeed the trick, the hope is that he'll be back with the Pelicans before season's end, proving that sometimes in the Minors it's OK if you return to a level, so long as you keep moving from there.
"I think it'll be a process," Hulett said. "He had a solo homer [on Monday] on a good swing, so that's a good sign. He hasn't had the time to prove it's working though. He has to learn all these adjustments while he's there, and those always take time. When he gets all of those down, that's when you'll see him moving up back up.
"And even then, Myrtle Beach is great but it's not a stopping point for him. This is a major overhaul that's aimed at getting him to the Majors. That's everyone's goal."
Marra mashing: Fourth overall pick Kyle Schwarber, who has since moved onto Class A Kane County, got the majority of the attention in the early going, but another Boise catcher has also done his fair share of hitting. Justin Marra, a 21-year-old backstop and 2011 15th-rounder out of Michael Power High School in Toronto, leads the Northwest League with 11 extra-base hits (eight doubles, three homers) and ranks third in the circuit with a .952 OPS. As a team, Boise leads the league in homers with 21 collectively; no other squad has more than 12.
Wheels turning in Eugene: Since being drafted 13th overall by the Padres, Trea Turner has hit the ground running in his first few games with the Emeralds. He's stolen eight bases, good enough to tie for third-most in the league, in nine attempts. That comes as no surprise after MLB.com pegged his run tool at a perfect 80/80 entering the Draft.
Profar, so good: Juremi Profar, brother of Rangers infielder Jurickson, has one of the odder player pages in the Minors this season with time recorded at Class A Hickory, Triple-A Round Rock and Spokane. Despite being only 18 years old and making his stateside debut, the right-handed shortstop has held his own at each level. With the Indians, he's batting .292 with 15 RBIs in 18 games and is even better of late, batting 13-for-38 (.342) in his last 10 games as of Thursday.
"He's a very low-key guy. He just comes to the ballpark ready to play. As long as he is on the field, he is happy," Hulett told MiLB.com. "He has always been a good leader on the field. He always has a smile on his face, like his brother in that sense."