Baseball players don’t sign professional contracts to be career minor leaguers, but Olympia native Adam Conley was pumped about getting a Triple-A assignment out of spring training in the Miami Marlins’ organization.
You see, the 2008 Olympia High School graduate who is back home in the Pacific Northwest this week with the New Orleans Zephyrs for the first time as a pro, looked at it from a big-picture standpoint. Conley endured elbow injuries that led to two disabled-list stints in 2014, his first Triple-A season after a promising rise through the minor-league ranks. He didn’t want to leave the league unsuccessful; a bone bruise on his pitching elbow shut the left-hander down in July.
Speaking inside Cheney Stadium’s visitors’ clubhouse after New Orleans arrived Tuesday, Conley, admitting he was excited to be back in Washington, said there was lots to gain by coming back to the Pacific Coast League.
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“This is where I need to be,” Conley said. “I want to prove I can dominate.”
In nine starts, he could be on his way. He will make start No. 10 in a familiar stadium Friday night, pitching for the visiting Zephyrs, who wrap up their four-game series with the Tacoma Rainiers at Cheney Stadium. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.
A lot has changed for the 25-year-old (4-2, 2.96 ERA) not just baseball-wise, but in his family life, too.
He became a father on Feb. 27, when he and his wife, Kendall, welcomed their daughter, Amelia, but Conley didn’t expect their first child’s arrival to have as big an impact on his life as it has. Baseball, he said, no longer is his identity.
“I realized even more that baseball is a game and that it’s going to end someday,” he said, “but I have the ability to do it right now. I love it and have a passion about doing it and hope to do it for a long time. ... But it puts life in perspective. When we leave the clubhouse and that when I come home, I have a family to come home to.”
Before he was a family man, Conley quickly rose through the minor-league ranks after being drafted No. 72 overall by the Marlins in 2011 as a junior at Washington State. The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder already made it to Triple-A New Orleans last season at age 24 with minor-league all-star appearances in Single-A Greensboro and Double-A Jacksonville.
But he’s quick to admit the first injury of his life last spring was a big setback.
First, elbow tendonitis put him on the disabled list last May. A successful comeback was made, but he subsequently threw so much, giving himself a bone bruise. He was shut down for the year after his final start on July 20. At the same time of Conely’s first DL stint was 2013 National League Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez’s season-ending Tommy John surgery announcement, and Conley, knowing he made impressive Triple-A starts, played the “what if?” game. Could that have been his break into the big leagues?
The inexperience, mistakes, and his own immaturity, he said, eventually turned into a bigger deal.
“I learned a lot,” Conley said. “I learned patience, I learned how to take care of myself on the DL. I don’t plan on making the same mistakes twice.”
He’s been healthy since. With a four-pitch arsenal (two- and four-seam fastballs in the low-90s, change-up and slider), Conley continues to work on his slider, but the walks are up (22 walks in nine starts compared to 26 in 11 starts in 2014).
New Orleans pitching coach John Duffy, who is in his second stint working with Conley after the pair worked together during the pitcher’s season in Double-A, has seen flashes of what Conley did when he won 11 games that season. Duffy said Conley needs to continue to master his game management and delivery.
“Once he refines all that,” Duffy said, “it’s all up to him.”
Conley, with his “happy, but not satisfied” outlook on what he’s accomplished entering his 10th start, hasn’t thought about if or when a major league debut will happen.
“If it takes time, then I’m willing to take the time,” he said. “I’m going to do what I can now every day to prepare now for when that day comes. I don’t know when that day is, or when that day ever comes.
“I didn’t sign up for pro ball to be a Triple-A player. I have work to do.”