It seems like a no-brainer. The Tigers should keep JaCoby Jones as the fourth outfielder when they travel north to start the season.
But like with so many no-brainers, this one’s not quite that simple, either. That’s because keeping Jones would almost certainly mean forfeiting their claim to Rule 5 draftee Victor Reyes, which would be a mistake for the team at this time.
Without a doubt, Jones has earned a spot on the Tigers’ roster.
Entering Monday, the 25-year-old Jones is batting .333 with three doubles and a home run in 36 at-bats. What really stands out is the gains we’ve seen from Jones in plate discipline.
Last year he struck out in 42.2 percent of his plate appearances and walked in 5.8 percent of them while in Detroit. He did a bit better in Triple-A Toledo in those areas, striking out 26.5 percent of the time and walking 8.4 percent. This year he’s walked in five of 41 plate appearances (12.2 percent) and struck out seven times (17 percent). That’s exactly the kind of improvement you’re looking for in spring training to help you decide who’s a candidate to have a better season.
The 23-year-old Reyes, on the other hand, has shown the opposite. He’s batting .200 with only a double among his eight hits. Worse, he’s walked three times (7 percent) and struck out 10 times (23 percent).
So why would anyone want to keep Reyes over Jones? Because building for the future means you have a little less concern for the present.
Reyes was a Rule 5 pick, so the Tigers would have to offer him back to his former team (the Diamondbacks) if he didn’t break camp on Detroit’s major-league roster. Although Reyes hasn’t had the finest of springs, he’s got a lot of potential, which is why the Tigers drafted him in the first place.
Reyes has hit .298 across six seasons in the minor leagues, with .347 on-base percentage and 80 steals in 561 games. In the Arizona Fall League — prospect finishing school — last year he batted .316 with 12 stolen bases in 20 games.
To go with the baserunning, he’s also good in the outfield. The tool he’s really missing out on is power, and it doesn’t seem to be coming. But not every player needs to slug if they can do everything else well.
So Reyes never was supposed to be the kind of player who steps on the field as a strong contributor at the major-league level on Day One. He’s the kind of player a team will just have to carry for a while, allowing him time to mature.
Meanwhile Jones has an option remaining on his contract. He can safely be sent to Toledo this year for as many times as the Tigers need without fear of losing him.
This might be a more difficult question for general manager Al Avila if there were any hopes of winning this year. Building baseball rosters is always the tension of winning now versus winning later. In the past, GM Dave Dombrowski repeatedly gambled and mortgaged the future to keep the team’s window of contending for a World Series title open longer, up until it was just not possible anymore.
Avila has the gift of time. Maybe the fans won’t like the weaker roster now, but they’ll be back if the team starts winning in the future.
The Tigers can stash Reyes away on their roster this year knowing that winning wasn’t going to happen anyway. They can let Jones keep maturing with regular at-bats in Triple A. He might be part of the long-term future if he can continue making improvements in plate discipline, but the best way to do that is getting regular at-bats.
It might not be the most fair outcome for Jones, who has definitely earned his right to be in the dugout on Opening Day next week. But it’s the right move for a team that can trade wins today for wins tomorrow.
Maybe it was a no-brainer after all.
Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer.