'Exciting player': JaCoby Jones starts to impress Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Slice into JaCoby Jones’ spring camp and the numbers tell a story almost unimaginable, considering what he had showed the Tigers during his 2017 cameo in Detroit.

Jones played Monday in his 19th game of the Grapefruit League season and had three hits, including a homer onto the left-center field berm at Marchant Stadium’s Publix Field.

Tigers outfielder Jacoby Jones, right, celebrates his home run against the Rays with a fist-bump from teammate Jeimer Candelario on Monday.

On the eve of the Tigers flying north for their 2018 regular season, Jones ended Monday’s game with a .370 batting average. He has a .431 on-base percentage to go with a .565 slugging column, good for a .997 OPS.

Maybe most impressive are his strikeouts: only 11, which is where a 25-year-old, right-handed batter with some of the best athleticism this side of the NFL Combine most needed to make progress heading into 2018.

“I think he brings lightning,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said after the Tigers and Rays had played to a 2-2, nine-inning tie.

Gardenhire was talking not only about Jones’ bat but about the speed a one-time prep football whiz carries as part of that 6-foot-2, 205-pound chassis.

“Jones is always making plays,” Gardenhire said. “One of the best first steps you’ll see. He’s an exciting player. And we need excitement.”

BOX SCORE: Tigers 2, Rays 2

Where, exactly, Jones plays as the Tigers unfurl their 2018 team isn’t yet clear. He’s a center fielder, ideally. But the Tigers have their everyday man in Leonys Martin.

He can play left field, also. But that space belongs, for now, to Mikie Mahtook.

Gardenhire isn’t worried. He says he’ll find room for Jones as he rests various players or squeezes match-up advantages from a man who can also play the infield.

“Absolutely,” the skipper said, explaining that “people worried about not using him” haven’t considered all the ways Jones can be useful.

Jones came to the Tigers three years ago as their half of a July deadline trade that sent Joakim Soria to the Pirates. Dave Dombrowski, then the Tigers general manager, liked his scouts’ feedback on Jones’ speed, range, and versatility, which is why the Pirates made him a third-round pick out of LSU in 2013.

His issues last season with the Tigers, apart from a .170 batting average, were 65 strikeouts and nine walks in 154 plate appearances. Detroit’s front office informed Jones he needed to cut down on the whiffs, swing at better pitches, and begin to harness a man’s power and potential.

Along with fewer strikeouts this spring, he has five walks in 48 plate appearances.

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Separate from his homer Monday, Jones had two singles — both infield hits that advertised his speed.

His third-inning bomb to the berm was one of two Tigers homers, with James McCann notching the other on a long, sky-scraping blast to left-center that nearly hit the Corona Cabana.

The Rays also had two runs Monday, both against Francisco Liriano, on a day when the Tigers’ most recent rotation add-on pitched well: six innings, five hits, two runs, two walks, six strikeouts. Liriano has a 2.25 ERA in four spring starts, with a .214 opposing batting average.

It was the sturdiest performance of the Grapefruit League season for Liriano, who was an unsigned free agent when the Tigers brought him aboard last month.

“He’s in good shape and able to proceed,” said Gardenhire, who credited a workout camp in Bradenton, Florida, formed by free agents who were still without a team late in the offseason. “You can see where his pitch-count is – 100 (Monday). That wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t had that camp for those guys.”

Liriano threw 64 strikes among his 100 pitches, with his fastball running steadily at 94 mph and his two side-dish pitches, a slider and change-up, behaving beautifully.

“He was the one who wanted to go out for that last inning,” Gardenhire said, speaking of the sixth. “That ball was jumping, and that slider was filthy.

“That’s Frankie Liriano command.”

More:Henning: Tigers have sure hits, red flags as camp nears conclusion


The Tigers say farewell to Florida on Tuesday with an afternoon game against the Rays at Tropicana Field. Gardenhire acknowledged Monday that Tuesday’s lineup will be loaded with names more attuned to the Tigers’ minor-league camp.

“We want to end this (spring camp) with healthy people,” said Gardenhire, who had his regulars stay in games for extra at-bats during the weekend and into Monday. “They’re good to go.”

… Gardenhire loved his six weeks in Lakeland as he got his Tigers managerial baptism.

“This is gorgeous — really gorgeous,” he said, speaking mostly about the TigerTown complex and the $50-million remodeling that was wrapped up a year ago. “Great working area. But I’m ready to get out of here.”

And head north for the regular season. He also is ready for some different traffic patterns after dealing with I-4’s congestion.

“They need 18 lanes each way,” said the skipper and would-be Polk County traffic controller.