Sleet came down steadily, a white tarp covered the infield and a baseball park never looked better to C.J. Cron.
When the Los Angeles Angels drafted him from the University of Utah in 2011, Cron knew his professional future likely included a return to everything that made him comfortable and happy for three years — meatball sandwiches at Moochie’s, shared housing with Ute teammate Jo Jo Sharrar and the batter’s box at 13th South & West Temple.
Rising through the ranks
Minor-league statistics for former University of Utah first baseman C.J. Cron:
Year Team Level G HR RBI Avg.
2011 Orem R 34 13 41 .308
2012 Inland Empire A 129 27 123 .293
2013 Arkansas AA 134 14 83 .274
River Cats at Bees
P Thursday, 6:35 p.m.
Cron once thought, "How awesome would that be?"
And here he is, opening the Pacific Coast League season Thursday night with the Salt Lake Bees at Smith’s Ballpark, where the Utes play home games.
Some pressure and expectations naturally accompany Cron’s homecoming. Yet this is nothing like Andrew Bogut or Jimmer Fredette joining the Jazz, hypothetically. That’s because Triple-A marketing works retroactively. The Bees love to celebrate how Mike Trout and Jered Weaver once played for them, before they became major league stars.
So Cron is not being asked to carry the team or drive ticket sales. The Angels just want him to keep improving and join them in Anaheim when he’s ready. How long will it take? Somewhere between the 20 games that Trout spent with the Bees in April 2012 and the 408 games that Efren Navarro has played for Salt Lake in the past three seasons.
Navarro, a PCL All-Star, is back with the Bees, but there’s no dilemma for manager Keith Johnson. Cron is the Bees’ everyday first baseman, for the sake of his development. The arrangement resembles what might happen someday with the Angels, where Albert Pujols occupies first base but could move into a designated hitter role.
The Angels recently traded former Salt Lake star Mark Trumbo, endorsing Cron’s future. "It definitely opened the door," Cron said. "But at the same time, nothing’s handed to you. You’ve still got to prove yourself and you’ve still got to do what it takes to make the big leagues."
That’s both a programmed answer from Cron, 24, and a reflection of his uncommonly consistent approach to pro baseball. A childhood of summers spent in the dugout of minor-league clubs prepared him well for this adventure. Cron’s father, Chris, managed teams at various levels for 20 years and is now the Arizona Diamondbacks’ minor-league hitting coordinator.
His father’s friendship with Ute coach Bill Kinneberg explained how Christopher John Cron Jr. originally came from suburban Phoenix to Salt Lake City. He thrived at Utah, moving from catcher to first base and developing into a big-time hitter.
Having signed for a $1.467 million bonus as the only Ute ever drafted in the first round, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Cron is making the standard journey through the Angels’ system: Orem, Inland Empire, Arkansas, Salt Lake.
"The best part about him is just his attitude," said second baseman Taylor Lindsey, who’s playing with Cron for a fourth season. "He’s always a great guy, he’s always having fun, he’s never down on himself."
The Angels expect more power from Cron than the 14 home runs he delivered for Arkansas last season. That number comes with the disclaimers of spacious parks, humidity and good pitching in the Texas League, and doesn’t include the two homers Cron hit in the Travelers’ first playoff game. Yet Cron ranked only third on the team behind Randal Grichuk (22), since traded to St. Louis, and Lindsey (17).
"Power’s usually the last thing to develop," Johnson said.
Johnson believes Cron’s familiarity with Smith’s Ballpark will help, in this sense: Some players are obsessed with trying to hit homers in the PCL’s thin air and alter their swings, but Cron should know that just making good contact will send the ball far enough.
The natural feeling of returning to Salt Lake City would involve pressure for Cron to "go out there and be like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m back,’ but he doesn’t have to," Lindsey said. "He just has to be C.J. Cron. … I’m not worried about C.J. He’s going to drive in 100 runs and hit 25 or 30 homers here."
Or more, or fewer, depending on how long he’s in town. Let’s just say it won’t be three years, like his first visit.
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