Why you should care
Fastballs to the face and failed drug tests can’t keep this slugger down.
After taking a 90 mph fastball to the mouth, most ballpayers do what they’re told and “stay down.” But with blood spilling from a split lip, JaCoby Jones, Detroit’s five-tool center fielder, bounced to his feet in the April 22 game against Minnesota and tried to outrun the pain. When he finishes rehab and returns to the big leagues, Jones has no intention of stopping.
Heading into this season, Jones had finally “made it.” After a brief 13-game major league debut last August, the former LSU infielder made a smooth off-season transition from infield to center field, where a starting spot had opened after the departure of last season’s starter, Cameron Maybin. Jones is the rare player who leaves scouts drooling: a complete five-tool athlete who excels at hitting for average and power, baserunning, throwing and fielding. As MLB searches for marketable young talent to lure fans, Jones’ exhilarating style of play — an even mix of diving catches, towering home runs and stolen bases — makes him an obvious choice from Detroit. But stretches of erratic play and strikeouts — not to mention a failed drug test and the lip laceration — threaten to derail his rise. Jones has all the tools; the question now is whether he can establish sustainable major league success.
“Oh, I’ve been ready for the big leagues,” Jones tells OZY during the final week of spring training in Lakeland, Florida. “I went out to the [Arizona Fall League] and got prepared to play center field. I’m having a good spring so far.”
Jones hardly lacks confidence. During team defensive drills, he seems to own center field, a show of speed and athleticism that’s far superior to the rest of Detroit’s outfield platoon. One can easily imagine the 6′2″ 205-pounder catching touchdowns on the gridiron rather than tracking fly balls. At batting practice, after strutting to the plate, he mashes 10 of 20 balls over the fence, howling at the last to “get up and out!”
As Jones was growing up in rural Mississippi, baseball was more a way of life than an extracurricular activity. Born in Richton, a town of 1,100 people, Jones was the only son of Bubba and Mary and remembers “hunting, fishing, going mud-riding. And playing ball,” he tells OZY. Backyard hitting lessons led to a high school career that saw Jones twice named Mississippi player of the year. He led Richton to Class 2A state championships and finished as Mississippi’s all-time career hit leader.
The Astros drafted Jones in the 19th round, but rather than jump at the signing bonus, he headed to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, believing a successful stint at baseball factory LSU would raise his draft stock. He became Louisiana State’s starting second baseman, and Freshman All-American awards and SEC all-conference seasons followed. Scouts debated where the athletic specimen could best be utilized on defense, but it was clear his bat and explosiveness were pro-grade. In June 2013, following an SEC championship and a trip to the College World Series for LSU, Pittsburgh drafted Jones in the third round.
If a more focused and self-assured Jones does return to anchor Detroit’s outfield … he has breakout star potential.
Fast-forward to this year, when, nearly two years after Jones was traded to Detroit, uncertainty still hovers over the team’s young talent. At spring training, in March, Detroit manager — and 18-year major league catcher — Brad Ausmus told OZY they were still deciding what to do with their raw talent. “We don’t know who’s going to play center,” he said.
One week after Ausmus’ comments, Jones ended the debate. His defensive abilities are the organization’s best, and, at least for a while, he seemed to have shored up the deficiencies in his swing that previously had scouts worried. Before last season, Baseball Prospectus’ Christopher Crawford wrote that the slugger’s power “plays down in-game, as Jones is too aggressive and lacks selectivity” at the plate. In other words, he’s prone to high strikeout rates. But Jones closed spring training with a .320 batting average and far more production than any of the team’s other options at center field. When Ausmus gave him the full-time starting nod, Jones thanked his manager on Opening Day by launching a three-run home run against the rival White Sox and All-Star pitcher José Quintana.
JaCoby Jones hit in the face by a 89mph fastball. Yikes! pic.twitter.com/JNDIg5E0AB— Ron W (@FIPmyWHIP) April 22, 2017
A big reason for Jones’ comfortable transition in Detroit has been his friendship with former LSU teammate and fellow Tigers outfielder Mikie Mahtook. In January, Detroit acquired the 2011 first-round pick from Tampa Bay. The move was not made with Jones in mind, but Mahtook’s presence seems to have helped Jones flourish in a big-league clubhouse. And, during practice breaks, other teammates gravitate toward the LSU pair. Jones, for his part, does his best to keep team morale high, cracking jokes and challenging veterans to daily home-run derbies at batting practice.
Positivity is key for Jones after a roller-coaster ride through the minor leagues. After being traded to the Tigers in 2015, Jones was served with a 50-game suspension for a second failed drug test. No, Jones wasn’t popped for steroids or another PED — his flunked tests were of the recreational “drug of abuse” variety — but scouts and general managers began questioning whether the prospect was committed enough to make the majors. Jones says it was the reality check he needed.
After nine stitches in his lip and 10 days on the disabled list, Jones is collecting at bats with the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate Toledo Mud Hens. But his volatile rise to the majors took a dip on May 7, when Ausmus decided to leave Jones at Triple-A until further notice. The thinking is that allowing Jones to consistently dominate at Triple-A will lead to faster success when he inevitably gets promoted. If a more focused and self-assured Jones does return to anchor Detroit’s outfield — and, more importantly, if a route to the postseason following a two-year hiatus is in store — he has breakout-star potential. Jones, much like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, plays with an exciting style that entices young fans — a key demographic the MLB is desperate to regain.
Jones will be back on the big-league roster soon — this time donning a protective face mask — looking to galvanize a lineup with ample room for growth. JaCoby Jones has been knocked down before. It’s safe to say he’ll come back running.