Power. Speed. Athleticism. These are some of the words often used effusively to describe the very best players in baseball. They are also littered all over the scouting reports of JaCoby Jones, one of the Detroit Tigers' newest top prospects. Jones, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Joakim Soria last July, isn't on the same level as the Mike Trouts and Josh Donaldsons of the world, but he does have tantalizing upside.
Jones was originally the Pirates' third round pick out of LSU in 2013. He mashed his way to 23 home runs and an .851 OPS in the Sally League in 2014, earning some love on the Pirates' prospect rankings prior to the 2015 season. His batting average and power dropped off as he moved up to High-A, but he improved his walk rate, and still had 31 extra base hits in 423 plate appearances before being traded. The Tigers then pushed him to Double-A, where he finished the year hitting .250/.331/.463 with six home runs in 37 games.
While evaluators are mixed on Jones' future potential, nearly everyone agrees that he is one of the organization's best prospects. He will miss valuable development time this year as he serves the remainder of a 50-game suspension for "drug of choice" use, but still has time to harness his athleticism and become an impact player at the major league level.
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One thing that has jumped off the page to many scouts and evaluators is Jones' athleticism. He stands a sturdy 6'2, 205 pounds but is a great runner and athlete. This allows him to play several positions -- he has spent nearly his entire minor league career at shortstop -- in both the infield and outfield. Many believe that he will eventually have to move away from short, but still has the athleticism to play anywhere else on the diamond. TigsTown's Mark Anderson gave Jones' speed a 50-grade with 55 potential, though many believe he has the talent and instincts to swipe anywhere from 15 to 30 bases at the major league level.
Along with that athleticism comes a fair bit of raw power. Jones already has 40 home runs in 265 minor league games, and scouts say the ball jumps off his bat. FanGraphs' Dan Farnsworth called it "easy power...that allows him to drive balls out of the park to all fields in batting practice." Jones has also shown off above-average bat speed, which could lead to a 15-20 homer season at the big league level if he sorts out his contact issues.
Speaking of those contact issues, many evaluators have noted that Jones' swing is a bit long, resulting in a lot of whiffs. Farnsworth, easily the most pessimistic about Jones' overall profile, went into more detail.
He pushes his hands out in front slightly, which cuts off the amount of time the bat can stay in the zone. Combined with some approach and contact problems, and that he’s seen them exposed more at each level, it’s tough seeing him as more than a 45 bat in the big leagues.
Baseball Prospectus' Chris Crawford offered similar sentiments, along with a note about Jones' plate discipline.
That power—as well as the hit tool—play down in-game however, as Jones is too aggressive at the plate; add the lack of selectivity and length to his swing, and you get a below-average (at best) hit tool.
TigsTown's Mark Anderson echoed both of these evaluations, noting Jones is an "aggressive swinger that likes to attack pitches anywhere near the zone" and "struggles to recognize spin."
The above evaluations appear in Jones' stat line, where he has a gaudy 28.2 percent strikeout across all minor league levels. He whiffed 52 times in 137 plate appearances at Double-A Erie last season, a Steven Moya-like 32.5 percent strikeout rate. Jones' rising walk rate is a positive sign, though the notes about his aggressive plate approach may halt that progress as he moves up the minor league ranks.
Evaluation: Chris Crawford, Baseball Prospectus
Jones still hasn’t come close to showing the upside he did as a freshman at LSU...The swing shows off his athleticism, with strong wrists and above-average bat speed that help create above-average raw power. That power -- as well as the hit tool -- play down in-game however, as Jones is too aggressive at the plate; add the lack of selectivity and length to his swing, and you get a below-average (at best) hit tool. That’s a shame because he’s a weapon when he does reach base. He combines good speed with good jumps and has 30-steal potential.
Projected team: Double-A Erie
Once Jones finishes his suspension, he will likely return to Erie, where he showed some positive signs of development shortly after arriving in the Tigers organization. Three of his six home runs at that level came in one game, but real signs of development will appear in his strikeout and walk rates. Jones has the potential to be a super-utility player if his bat pans out, but his hit tool needs to take a jump forward for him to reach that ceiling. He's one prospect I will be keeping a close eye on over the next couple years.
Note: We're changing up our prospect coverage a bit this year. Instead of an "official" ranking of the best prospects in the system, we're going to profile those that are most interesting to us (and you too, hopefully). Don't worry, no one has been fired, and daily recaps will still happen during the season. We appreciate any constructive feedback you offer, and we'll take your prospect suggestions into account as well.