READING - Truth be told, the conversion of Jiwan James began in the spring of 2008. Drafted in the 22nd-round as a pitcher the previous June, the lanky righthander was attempting to battle through a forearm injury that had relegated him to the sidelines during extended spring training. Dusty Wathan, who at the time was a first-year minor league coach, felt bad for the kid and offered to throw him some pitches in the cage.
"You could tell he had a good swing," Wathan said. "But back then, it was a really good swing for a pitcher."
Four years later, the swing is good from any perspective. James, who converted to outfield after missing all of 2008, has opened up his first Double A season on a tear, hitting .304 with two home runs, four doubles and two triples through 18 games. While the 23-year-old switch-hitter has never been considered an elite prospect by scouts, he does have the type of potential that makes him worth monitoring this season. The last three seasons, his chief asset was his defense, where he made a seamless transition from the mound to centerfield. This year, with Tyson Gillies starting in centerfield for Reading, James has spent most of his time playing the corners.
While his defensive ability has kept him on the Phillies' radar, the big question heading into 2012 centered around his bat. His first year as an outfielder, James hit .264 with a .336 on-base percentage and .372 slugging percentage in 30 games at rookie-league Williamsport. But his production remained at that level as he rose to low-A Lakewood in 2010 and high-A Clearwater in 2011. A .268 hitter who struck out 120 times in 526 at-bats in 2011, he had yet to establish himself as a contact bat, and with four home runs and a .363 slugging percentage, he had yet to display the kind of power that can compensate for the swings and misses.
Which is why his goal heading into this season makes sense.
"Just get stronger," James said. "Physically and mentally."
In December, the Phillies decided not to place James on the 40-man roster, making him eligible to be selected in December's Rule 5 draft. While that isn't a death sentence - any team that picked him up would have been able to keep him only if he remained on their active major league roster all season - it also isn't a resounding vote of confidence. Which is why Wathan, who is in his first year managing at Reading, agrees with the suggestion that 2012 is a big season for his old batting practice buddy.
"He's on the radar for a lot of people, but this is his shot to really jump," Wathan said.
The opportunity is there. With Shane Victorino scheduled to hit free agency after the season and Hunter Pence eligible to do so after 2013, the only minor league position player who is close to ready for an everyday chance in the big leagues is Triple A leftfielder Domonic Brown. The Phillies hoped Gillies would be in that realm when they acquired him in a package for Cliff Lee in December of 2009, but injuries limited him to 31 games in 2010 and 2011. Through 16 games this season, he is hitting .254 with a .296 OBP, .403 slugging percentage, one home run and one stolen base.
Whether James can push his way up the organizational depth chart will depend on whether he can extend his performance from the first couple weeks over the course of a 5-month season. While he has clearly begun to fill out his 6-4 frame, the jump in James' power numbers comes more from his aggressiveness at the plate. His strikeout rate is similar to what it was from 2009-11, but he has more than doubled his rate of extra-base hits, from 6.2 percent of plate appearances in 2011 to 13.3 percent this season.
The key, he says, is more mental than physical. During his time in the system, James has grown close to Brown, who has bounced from the minors to the majors and back again the last two seasons.
"Basically, all he tells me is to learn from him," James said. "All of the stuff that he's going through with maturing, pay attention to it. Every time I talk to him, it's more about the mental part of the game."
The potential is there. A former all-state defensive back at tiny Williston High in rural southwest Florida, James originally planned on playing baseball at the University of Florida before deciding at the last minute to accept a bonus worth a reported $150,000 from the Phillies. He talks with a mature ease that is not always found in a young player who entered the work force straight out of high school. Combined with his defensive ability, James' makeup should ensure a spot on the radar for the foreseeable future.
The question now: How big of a blip can he become?