JaCoby Jones does it all, remains ‘in mix’ for center field

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
JaCoby Jones

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – For the past month, there has been this assumption floating like pine pollen across Tigertown’s baseball complex.

It has to do with rookie outfielder JaCoby Jones, and expectations he will begin the regular season at Triple A Toledo in a bid to refine his hitting.

But after Thursday’s game, a 5-3 victory over the Braves at Champion Field, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus could state that nothing final has been settled with respect to Jones, who had a medal-winning afternoon.

“He’s still in the mix,” Ausmus said after Jones drilled a homer to the berm in left, swatted a single, drew a walk, stole two bases, and made a cross-country catch on Brandon Phillips’ drive up the right-center field alley.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 5, Braves 3

“If the decision’s that JaCoby Jones is our best right-handed (hitting) option in center field, fine. But we also want what’s best for JaCoby Jones.”

The Tigers, of course, have all but held a center-field tryout camp as they sort through contestants for the one unsettled spot in Ausmus’ lineup.

The probable scenario, with slightly more than two weeks remaining in spring camp, is for a platoon arrangement that most likely will involve left-hand hitting Tyler Collins, as well as Mikie Mahtook, who bats right-handed.

Anthony Gose, Alex Presley, and Jones are officially among challengers there, with Jones by far the most gifted of the gang, thanks to his blend of speed, defense, and power.

He gave a crowd of 7,434 a taste of the latter when he led off the second with a scorching homer high onto the grassy berm in left field. He ripped a single to center in the fourth and stole second base. Then, in the sixth, after he drew a walk despite being down 1-and-2 in the count, Jones again stole second base.

He scooted to third on Collins’ ground-out to the right side and scored on James McCann’s hard single to center.

He also was responsible for the day’s defensive jewel when, in the fifth, he sprinted across the turf in tracking down Phillips’ bomb to right-center.

“He got to it pretty easily,” Ausmus said. “I wasn’t surprised he caught it. But I was surprised he got to it that easily.

“He had a good day, defensively, and a good day at the plate.”

The Tigers’ reluctance to make Jones their choice in center stems from one concern: his youth.

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Jones, 24, has played in only 13 big-league games, all with the Tigers, and all during a summer cameo in 2016 when he batted .214, with 12 strikeouts in 28 plate appearances.

But he had a fine stint in last autumn’s Arizona Fall League, which made him, at least technically, a candidate for center as the Tigers convened for spring camp.

His status hasn’t changed. Not publicly. Privately, the Tigers are leaning toward giving him a low-pressure start at Toledo. Should all go well there, it is envisioned a call-up could soon follow.

Ausmus all but allowed for that scenario Thursday with his reference to the Tigers doing “what’s best for JaCoby Jones.”

Jones, of course, came to the Tigers in July 2015, by way of a deadline deal with the Pirates that sent reliever Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh.

Jones’ athleticism intrigued then-Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, who had been tipped off by Detroit’s scouts. Jones plays third base as well as center field, but there was never any doubt where the Tigers would deploy him, given his speed, Comerica Park’s expanse, and the Tigers’ light center-field stable.

Jones wasn’t the Tigers’ only big hitter Thursday. Nick Castellanos slammed a long, arcing drive against the right-center field scoreboard in the fifth for a two-run shot that gave the Tigers the lead after Atlanta had scored two runs in the first, mostly thanks to ground-ball singles, against Tigers starter Daniel Norris.

James McCann and Dixon Machado added RBI singles for the Tigers.

Norris, was the Tigers’ co-star Thursday as he worked 4.2 innings, allowing six hits – most of them on ground balls – and a pair of runs, while walking one and striking out four.

Norris threw 63 pitches, 45 of which were strikes, as he hummed his fastball at 93-94 mph, and was generally reliable with his slider, curveball, and a handful of change-ups.

Norris was followed by Daniel Stumpf, Sandy Baez, Shane Greene, and Buck Farmer. The Braves got only a single hit against the group until the ninth, when a double and single against Farmer (two innings, four strikeouts) scored the Braves’ final run.

The Tigers won their fourth consecutive game and are now 7-12 on the Grapefruit League season.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning