Lakeland, Fla. – When JaCoby Jones fully establishes himself in the big leagues, it will likely be as a center fielder. It’s the ideal position for a player with his dynamic athletic tools and instincts.
It’s almost like he was born to play center field.
In the meantime, however, Leonys Martin was brought in to be the center fielder this season. And the Detroit Tigers are looking for ways to keep Jones on the big-league roster without sitting him on the bench and stunting his development. Which is why he played left field in Bradenton the other day, and it’s why he has been taking ground balls at third base.
“Whatever they want,” Jones said before the Tigers’ game Sunday against the Atlanta Braves. “It doesn’t matter to me. If they want me to play infield too, that’s fine.”
The thought process is this: If he makes the team as the fourth outfielder, then his at-bats will be limited. In that scenario, it would be better for him to start the season playing every day at Triple-A Toledo.
He has a minor-league option remaining.
But, if he can get some at-bats while filling in at all three outfield spots, plus get a few more filling in for Jeimer Candelario, well then, maybe it would be mutually beneficial for Jones to come north with the Tigers.
That scenario is clouded a bit by the presence of Rule 5 draftee Victor Reyes, who can also play all three outfield positions. If he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, the Tigers would have to offer him back to Arizona.
Jones’ mind is blissfully uncluttered with those scenarios. When asked if he allowed himself to think about his odds of making the team, he says without hesitation, “Not one bit.”
“All I can do,” he said, “is play. If they wanted to send me to A-ball, they can. It’s their decision. My job is come out every day and try to play my best.”
And the whole taking ground balls at third base thing? No big deal. He played shortstop and third base through 2015. The Tigers converted him to center field in 2016.
“Whatever they want me to do,” he said, again.
Jones, for the second straight year, has been one of the most consistently productive players in camp. He’s hitting .400 in 20 at-bats, with two doubles, a home run and six RBIs. He’s also walked four times – which is as encouraging as his eight hits.
“He’s an exciting player,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I think he gets after it. He can play all over, it looks like to me. He seems to have a great first step to the ball and he covers a lot of ground. He makes it look easy.
“And I like his energy in the dugout. Even when he’s not playing, he’s paying attention.”
The problem is, and has been, his whiff rate. He has struck out 42 percent of his big-league at-bats.
“He has a nice swing,” hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said. “His launch angle is probably optimal – in the 16 to 25 percent range – for his type of bat speed and exit velocity. It’s optimal. But he just needs to lay off the high pitches. And we’re working on it.
“It takes experience, too.”
Jones, who the Tigers acquired from the Pirates for then-closer Joakim Soria in 2015, didn’t play winter ball this offseason. It was the first time he’s taken that much time off competitive baseball in years, even going back to his days at LSU.
He had a lot to sort through. After making the club and hitting a game-winning home run on Opening Day in Chicago, the course of his season was altered after he got hit in the face by a 90-mph fastball on April 22.
Jones came back a month later, but he never regained any traction at the plate. He spent the rest of the season shuttling between Detroit and Toledo. He swears the incident didn’t affect him at the plate.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about it when I came back from the injury. After I got hit, I knew guys would challenge me up and in a lot. I know that was in the back of my mind. But other than that, not really.”
He was susceptible to sliders and other pitches that swept away from him. He’s been buzzed up and in a few times already this spring, but he seems to be standing in better.
“I’m just grind-stoning it,” he said. “I’m not thinking too much. Just play as hard as I can whenever I play.”
He insists he hasn’t changed anything at the plate – not his approach, not his stance or mechanics. He feels like the clearer he can keep his mind, the more he will trust his athleticism and instincts at the plate, and the better off he will be.
“It’s just baseball,” he said. “You go through stretches where you lay off pitches. Your eyes feel good and you are seeing the ball in the zone. I feel good how my approach is at the plate – just be ready and compete.
“Just be in a good position to hit when the ball is coming across the plate. It’s working out so far.”
That it is.