Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — JaCoby Jones understands how the Tigers are thinking; he respects it, even.
But for the record, it wouldn’t be his recommendation.
Jones is presenting the Tigers with a thorny dilemma. He has been the most consistent performer in the battle for the center-field job. He’s hit .313 this spring with a .371 on-base percentage, .531 slugging (two home runs) and .903 OPS.
He may be the best pure athlete on the team and he’s adapted seamlessly to center field. He could replicate, in exuberance, speed and dynamic presence, the same kind of spark Cameron Maybin provided when he was healthy last year.
But the Tigers are conflicted. Jones is still raw. He hasn’t proven he can handle big-league pitching, especially big-league breaking balls. They aren’t sure he’s ready to be the everyday center fielder.
The worst scenario would be for him to start the season in Detroit, get overwhelmed early when the weather is still cold, and then require a couple of months to rebuild his confidence.
Playing him as part of a righty-lefty platoon isn’t the answer, either. Hitting only against left-handed pitching, he wouldn’t get enough playing time and his development would be stunted.
So, it seems Jones is in an all-or-nothing position in terms of being on the 25-man roster.
Which, understandably, doesn’t thrill him.
“That’s their decision ultimately,” he said. “But I feel I am ready for the big leagues. I feel like, whenever they want me to play, I am capable of competing in the big leagues. But it’s their decision, so I am not going to worry about where they send me or what they want to do with my development.
“I know in my mind that I am ready for the big leagues. And I want to be there.”
The Tigers acquired right-handed hitting Mikie Mahtook from Tampa Bay this offseason, believing he could either win or share the center-field spot. He and left-handed hitting Tyler Collins came into camp as the presumed frontrunners.
Both have had sluggish camps. Mahtook is starting to hit the ball better after a slow start and Collins has missed a lot of defensive time because a lingering lat injury.
Anthony Gose (lefty) and Andrew Romine (switch hitter) are also in the mix.
Jones’ focus is laser-trained on himself, not the competition.
“It’s always a good thing that I’m still here, still competing, still playing every couple of days,” he said. “Just getting in there trying to get at-bats. I know it’s tough. There’s three or four of us playing center field and it’s tough to get at-bats for everybody. But there’s only eight or nine games left.
“I just want to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
Jones hadn’t let the thought of not making the team enter his mind. Still, he was asked how he thought he might react if he had to start the season at Toledo. He wouldn’t be the first player cut late in camp to struggle with the demotion.
“No, you are always going to fight, no matter where you are,” he said. “Even if I was to start in the big leagues, I know there were still guys fighting to get up there. There’s people competing for spots all over. Even if I was in Detroit, I’d still be competing. I’d have to do well to stay there.
“It’s the same thing if I am down there. If they send me down there, I don’t want to stay long. I’m going to do whatever I can to get back up. But hopefully, I can break camp with them.”
On the back fields
With games getting scarce, the Tigers are utilizing minor-league games to get their pitchers some work.
Michael Fulmer, Alex Wilson and Francisco Rodriguez all worked on the back fields Thursday.
Fulmer went four innings (79 pitches), and allowed four hits, four walks and a run. He stuck out nine.
Wilson, who threw a scoreless inning on Monday, pitched two-plus innings (33 pitches, 20 strikes). He gave up three hits and a walk.
Rodriguez, in his first game back from the WBC, faced six hitters (24 pitches, 16 strikes) and allowed a hit and a walk.
The Tigers are expecting their second baseman back in the lineup on Sunday.
Ian Kinsler, fresh off his WBC championship run with Team USA, was expected to be back in Lakeland on Friday.
“He will be at the ballpark (Friday), get a workout in, work out again on Saturday, and play on Sunday,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “That’s the plan, unless something changes with his flight back.”
Kinsler, who singled and homered in the championship game, hit .267 and scored eight runs in the tournament.