JaCoby Jones anxious to reclaim Tigers’ CF role

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — This wasn’t the script he envisioned. Especially not after he stole the starting center-field job out of spring training and then hit a home run in Chicago in his first at-bat of the season.

But, this is exactly the script the Tigers envisioned for JaCoby Jones.

“This was the whole discussion in spring training,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “We thought he was our best center fielder and obviously you want to win at the Major League level. But what’s best for JJ? Is it better for him to go down and get at-bats?

“I guess it was a blend of those two — trying to do what’s best for the team and what’s best for him. Not exactly how you plan it out, but we will see how it works in the long run.”

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Jones is back. After spending the better part of the last three months at Triple-A Toledo, he was in the starting lineup, in center field, Saturday. At the time he was recalled, it was just to fill the roster spot of pitcher Anibal Sanchez, who is on the disabled list.

“Right now he is up in lieu of a starting pitcher,” Ausmus said. “We don’t need one until Saturday. But we will see what the move is when we get there.”

Which means Jones has a chance to earn an extended stay before rosters are expanded in September.

“When I was up here earlier, I was struggling, scuffling a little bit,” said Jones, who was 1-for-2 with a strikeout in Saturday's 3-0 loss. “Strikeouts were coming in bunches. I wasn’t helping the team offensively. My defense was there, but my offense – it was a struggle.

“They wanted me to go down there and work on my game, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Jones struck out 19 times in 45 plate appearances in April, before getting hit in the jaw with a fastball against the Twins on April 22. When he came back nearly a month later, the strikeouts persisted — seven in 12 plate appearances.

“I’ve just tried to be more disciplined at the plate,” he said. “The discipline is the biggest thing for me. I’m always antsy, always trying to do everything, always wanting to hit every pitch,” he said. “I’m still learning to be disciplined, to swing at pitches I can hit.”

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It took him a while to get going at Toledo, as well. He struck out 103 times in 388 plate appearances. But he also had nine home runs, 43 RBIs and stole 12 bases in 16 attempts.

“I know my numbers down there aren’t those of a superstar player or anything like that,” Jones said. “But I’ve felt good in the box.”

In the last week, four games, he hit .375 (6-for-16) with 1.007 OPS, striking out four times in 19 plate appearances.

“Everything happens for a reason and I think it was a good thing for me to go down there and get more at-bats and play every single day,” Jones said. “Up here, if I was struggling, I would’ve only played against left-handed pitching, probably only play once every three or four days. Playing every day down there, trying to find that groove was good for me.”

If Jones figures it out offensively, Saturday could be a preview of the outfield alignment in 2018 — Jones in center and Mikie Mahtook in right field. Or, if Justin Upton elects to opt out of the final three years of his contract with the Tigers, Mahtook could be the starting left fielder next season and perhaps Nick Castellanos would be the right fielder.

Time will tell.

“Jones is probably our best defensive center fielder right now,” Ausmus said. “Mikie is a good center fielder, but I think he has a chance to be a really good corner outfielder.”