When JaCoby Jones was acquired for Joakim Soria in 2015, people said he was a good return. They were wrong. That isn’t because Jones is a bad prospect. In fact, the opposite is the case. They were wrong because they didn’t know just how valuable to the Tigers Jones could end up being.
Originally selected in the third round of the 2013 MLB draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jones would end up serving a 50-game suspension for a “drug of abuse” shortly after arriving in Detroit, costing him some development time. What he has done on the field since has been impressive. After missing the first 38 games of the 2016 season, he tore up Double-A to the tune of a .991 OPS in 20 games, earning him a quick promotion to Triple-A. However, Toledo ended up being quite a challenge for Jones. Overall, he managed just a .663 OPS with three homers and 11 steals in 79 games. A late hot streak in mid-August saved his season, and he was called up to Detroit just before September 1.
Jones’ major league career started in quite memorable fashion. In his first game, he recorded two hits and two RBI, including a go-ahead RBI double for his first major league hit. The next day, he wound up playing ninth inning hero. He hit a leadoff double, then scored the game winning run on a walk-off sacrifice fly, sliding across the plate into the outstretched arms of Ian Kinsler. After that, though, things quickly went south. Over the next eight games, Jones went 2-for-20 with 11 strikeouts as pitchers feasted on his aggressive, free-swinging ways.
Jones’ raw athleticism gives him above average speed and power. He has earned plus marks on his speed and was clocked in the minors at 4.1 second from home to first base, a remarkable time for a right-handed hitter. He has shown flashes of that speed on the basepaths, swiping 58 bags in his minor league career. His raw athleticism makes him well suited for center field as well. Even if his bat doesn’t fully pan out, he still has enough raw athletic versatility and speed to become a useful utility player that can field nearly any position.
When I saw Jones in person at Toledo, two things stuck out to me. When he hits the ball, it absolutely jumps off his bat. Even the fly outs were hard-hit lasers. The power in his bat is very much real, and if he sprays the ball like that the average will be high as well. Most scouts agree, saying Jones has slightly above average raw power to tap into. This combination of power and speed adds up to a guy with potential to hit 15-20 homers and swipe 20-30 bases in a season if everything comes together.
His intangibles extend to his mentality. Jones is eager to win himself the starting center field spot in spring.
I just know that we have an open outfield spot. It’s going to be fun, and I know I have a good chance if I can just play my game. The Tigers want me to do whatever I can to help the team win. It should be a fun spring and challenging to compete for the centerfield spot.
His confident and exuberant attitude is apparently infectious. Fellow top prospect Christin Stewart mentioned to Baseball America that Jones was an excellent teammate and positive influence during this most recent Arizona Fall League.
We talk all the time, he’s a great guy who I look to. Pretty much he says just everyday you go out there you’ve got to have fun and have a routine and stick to it. Your body is going to get tired, but you have a routine that you stick to, that’s one of the bigger things.
For all his raw tools, Jones has a low contact rate, resulting in a robust 29.1 percent strikeout rate in the minors last season. He has a violent swing that can get long at times, and his aggressiveness at the plate leads him to chase more pitches than he should. While his contact is loud, the problem is he doesn’t make contact very often. He is too eager to swing right now and needs to hone his pitch recognition skills, a big reason why the Tigers want him to start the season in the minor leagues.
Jones brings boatloads of intensity to his game, and while that’s fun to watch, it can also be his downfall. This takes time to develop, and he needs the time in the minors before he can be useful as an everyday player in Detroit. He has trouble picking up pitches, and his swing leaves the bat with little time in the hitting zone, which is reflected in his high strikeouts (30% in 2016).
Jones was primarily an infielder in the Pirates’ system, and played a lot of shortstop and third base early on with the Tigers. Scouts pegged him as no better than an average shortstop when drafted, and many speculated that, due to his plus speed, he might find a better future in the outfield. It wasn’t until he returned to the field in 2016 that the Tigers transitioned him to center field, so he is still a bit raw defensively. The TigsTown staff echoed this sentiment when they listed him fifth in their 2017 prospect rankings.
Jones has the raw ingredients to be a contributing defender at a variety of positions, but he lacks the instincts to play on every day on the dirt, and may not have enough feel to handle center field consistently.
Jacob’s Scouting Report:
Projected Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
It would probably be in both Jones’ and the Tigers’ best interest if he got more work in Triple-A Toledo to start the season. The chances of him breaking camp with the team, barring an injury, are low. Still, if he can focus on improving his approach in the batters box and cut down on the strikeouts, he could be wearing Cameron Maybin’s old #4 sooner rather than later. For now, though, look for him to start the season in Toledo and get everyday reps in center.
(Video courtesy of FanGraphs)