Lakeland, Fla. — It was a routine single to right-center field, but JaCoby Jones took off out of the box like he’d hit a gapper. He slammed on the breaks after a wide turn, forcing the Phillies’ center fielder Odubel Herrra to hustle the ball in.
Then, on a single to right by Jose Iglesias, he never hesitated rounding second and flew into third base.
The same scenario repeated itself two innings later. Single by Jones. Take third easy on another single to right by Iglesias.
This is part of what JaCoby Jones can bring to the Tigers this season — speed, athleticism, energy.
“Obviously, being the young guy, I always have energy,” Jones said after the Tigers’ 8-2 exhibition loss to the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday. “I just want to be hyper and energetic for these guys and hope it carries over to them.”
That was the dynamic Cameron Maybin brought to the Tigers in his injury-filled season a year ago. And, although manager Brad Ausmus hasn’t officially handed him the center-field job, it appears Jones will get the opportunity to replicate it.
“I feel in my heart and in my mind that I am the center fielder and every day I wake up and come to the field knowing I’m the Tigers center fielder,” Jones said. “That’s how I think. I’ve had a good spring so far and I hope I can keep it up.”
There was a report from ESPN Wednesday that outfielder Steven Moya was placed on outright waivers. Manager Brad Ausmus would not confirm (or deny) the report and Moya was on the lineup card for the game in Sarasota on Thursday.
Still, it has appeared for weeks that Moya was not going north with the team, even after J.D. Martinez was injured. Alex Presley, who had a spectacular spring, was reassigned to minor league camp on Wednesday.
So, when you add up who is left — Jones, barring a late trade, looks like the everyday center fielder. Mikie Mahtook and Tyler Collins, the original center-field tandem, has slid over to right field to fill the void left by Martinez.
“We kind of knew who he was,” Ausmus said of Jones. “He’s hit the ball more consistently than maybe we thought he was capable of at this point.”
Jones is hitting .340 this spring and is putting the ball in play consistently.
“He’s very athletic; we knew he was a good center fielder,” Ausmus said. “He runs the bases, he’s a very instinctive baserunner. In that sense, he hasn’t surprised us. But I think he’s shown what he can bring to a team when he’s in the lineup — especially on the bases.
“We’re a team that typically plays base to base. He forces outfielders to go after the ball because if they don’t, he will take an extra base.”
Speed and youth, coupled with talent, will create energy. And with a mostly veteran lineup, it doesn’t hurt to have a player who can provide an extra jolt.
Maybin showed that last year.
“He’s young and there’s a lot of life in his body,” Ausmus said. “That all adds to the energy factor. And I think that can sometimes be good for a team when you have a lot of veteran players.
“Veteran players are so used to the length of the season, they kind of become numb to the day-in, day-out. A young kid can bring that energy back.”
Jones isn’t counting any chickens. He feels like he’s won the job, but he’s not assuming anything.
“I hope so,” he said when asked if he felt he’s won the job. “It’s getting close, but I haven’t heard anything yet. I had a good spring. I feel like I went to the (Arizona) Fall League and worked on my approach at the plate and on playing center field.
“And I have come out this spring and played pretty well. I’m ready.”
Jones would be the first rookie to start in center field for the Tigers since Austin Jackson in 2010.