Tigers, JaCoby Jones hope AFL stint pays dividends

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Keep up the good work.

It’s a mantra JaCoby Jones has more or less been sticking with since he departed Phoenix last November after wrapping up a stint in the Arizona Fall League.

Jones, 24, is one of the contestants for a Tigers center-field job that’s wide open as manager Brad Ausmus’ crew begins its preseason games Thursday, against Florida Southern, at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Jones last autumn was ordered to the AFL, where big-league teams’ top young prospects often are sent to buff skills as a prelude to more serious auditions at spring camp.

Jones was sixth among all AFL hitters in 2016, batting .329 in 21 games, with a .391 on-base average and .818 OPS. He had a home run, seven walks, and — significantly — only 16 strikeouts in 82 official at-bats.

“More contact,” said Jones, a former Louisiana State star who came to the Tigers from the Pirates in a July 2015 trade for reliever Joakim Soria. “I stayed balanced with my legs. I just felt different in the box than I had.”

Jones credited “Clarkie” — Phil Clark, the Salt River Rafters hitting coach known more for his position as batting coach for the Tigers’ Double A affiliate at Erie. Clark and Jones had worked together during Jones’ time with the SeaWolves and reunited during the AFL autumn.

The Tigers will give Jones his share of at-bats during the Grapefruit League season, which for Detroit begins Friday against the Orioles at Publix Field.

They won’t be surprised if a right-handed batter, 6-foot- 2 and 205 pounds, needs a bit more incubation at Triple A Toledo. But neither are they closing minds — not when Jones, a third-round pick by the Pirates, has speed, power, and probably more defensive range than any of the center-field contenders.

Jones played 13 games for the Tigers in 2016, batting .214, with 12 strikeouts in 28 at-bats. He has had ongoing issues with the whiffs, striking out 120 times in 99 games at Toledo and Erie in 2016.

But the Tigers saw enough progress in Arizona to suggest Jones isn’t far from Detroit — if he can find that same “balance” in the batter’s box he and Clark worked to establish with the River Rafters.

“Better at-bats,” Jones said Wednesday, with a nod. “Just working to make more contact.”

Ausmus has no plans to hit Tigers’ Upton in No. 2 spot

No thanks

The Tigers were scheduled Wednesday to play in an annual Lakeland golf event, even as rain fell, which moved their morning workouts indoors.

Ausmus appreciated the invitation. But he wasn’t overly enthused to swing a club.

He all but quit golf 15 or so years ago as “my frustration level went up.”

There were other reasons to forgo those 18-hole adventures.

“I had kids, and I started surfing,” said Ausmus, who has a home overlooking the Pacific, near San Diego. “Golf keeps you out of the house for six hours. Surfing is an hour and-a-half.”

Good feelings

It was announced Wednesday that Jim Joyce is among four prominent big-league umpires who are retiring ahead of the 2017 season. The others: John Hirschbeck, Tim Welke, and Bob Davidson.

Joyce, of course, became part of Tigers lore in 2010 when he botched a final-out call at first base that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game against the Indians at Comerica Park.

“Nice man,” Ausmus said of Joyce, who, ironically, was responsible for Ausmus’ first ejection as a manager in 2014.

The ejection came over a protested replay. Ausmus praised Joyce as a pure professional, a descriptor he would apply to most big-league umps.

“My relationship with the vast majority of umpires was very good,” said Ausmus, who before he became Tigers manager was a big-league catcher for 18 seasons.

“I had a good relationship with almost everyone.”