Prospect Reports

Can JaCoby Jones Become a Starting Shortstop in the Majors?

Can JaCoby Jones Become a Starting Shortstop in the Majors?

(photo credit: Robin Black)

JaCoby Jones hit his 20th homer of the year last night. (Photo Credit: Robin Black)

JaCoby Jones is having an impressive season at the plate in West Virginia. Last night he hit two homers, giving him 20 on the year. I pointed out how he is the first shortstop prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system to do this since 1996, when Chad Hermansen was playing the position and hit 24 homers.

Obviously no one wants to ever hear a prospect mentioned in the same sentence as Hermansen. Then again, the Pirates had a horrible history in their farm system prior to Neal Huntington and company arriving. Most of the high points were from forgettable Pirates, which means it’s pretty much impossible to say “He’s the first to (insert accomplishment) since (insert player’s name who will make people cringe).”

One disclaimer with Jones is that he’s 22-years-old, and spent three years in college. That puts an asterisk on his numbers for multiple reasons. First, he’s a bit older than most prospects at the level. He also has more experience against the quality of pitching that he sees in West Virginia. There’s also the issue of strikeouts.

Jones has struck out 26% of the time this year, with a 7% walk rate. It’s not impossible to eventually make the majors with a bad strikeout rate and a below-average walk rate in A-ball. Starling Marte did just that, striking out 22% of the time and walking 4.9% of the time in A-ball. Marte was also much younger than Jones at the level, which adds a complication.

The issue with Jones reminds me of a situation last year with the Pirates. Stetson Allie was destroying Low-A ball at the age of 22, to the tune of a .324/.414/.607 line in 244 at-bats. Those numbers easily trump what Jones has put up this year — a .289/.352/.494 line in 415 at-bats. Last year I wrote an article, comparing Allie to other 22-year-old players in the SAL who put up huge numbers. The qualification for “huge numbers” was an OPS over 1.000. Jones doesn’t have that, sitting around .850 at the moment.

The article on Allie pointed out that Low-A success for a 22-year-old didn’t necessarily equal a strong MLB career. The best case was Hunter Pence, but he seemed to be the exception. The most common situation was a platoon player, with Gaby Sanchez being one of the players featured. Then there were people who reached Triple-A or the majors, but were mostly what you’d classify as “4A” players. Overall, it was more likely that a 22-year-old crushing the SAL would be a role player or worse, than an impact bat in the majors.

As we’ve seen with Allie this year, the numbers in West Virginia haven’t even led to similar numbers in Double-A. He has a .250/.361/.429 line in 352 at-bats with Altoona. The strikeout issues are still there, although they’re actually slightly better than his numbers in A-ball. He’s getting on base at a good rate, and hitting for power, but not hitting for average. His numbers in Altoona make it look more likely that he could be a role player or worse, rather than being an exception like Hunter Pence.

And that’s where Jones comes in. If we looked at every 22-year-old in the SAL with an .850 OPS or better, we’d get a ton of results. This year there are ten examples who have an OPS of .846 (the current level for Jones) or better. With the increase in examples, we’d also get an increase in possibilities. Just doing a quick look, I found more guys who didn’t amount to much, like Chris McGuiness in 2010. Then there’s guys like Jonathan Lucroy in 2008. The result that we’d get from that further study is the same thing we got with Allie — there are tons of possibilities on a wide spectrum, all of which tell us that the numbers Jones is putting up in A-ball mean nothing.

Just like Allie, there’s a reason why Jones is in Low-A at the age of 22. In Allie’s case, it was because he was making a switch from being a pitcher to being a position player. Jones is making a switch as well. He’s moving from center field to shortstop, which is a difficult position to learn. I’ve received mixed reports on his progress, ranging from writing him off as a shortstop, to saying he has the tools and athleticism to stick there. If he does stick at the position, he would almost certainly be an offense-first guy. Neal Huntington talked about Jones and his chances of sticking at the shortstop position on Sunday.

“Our guys are confident he can play shortstop with continued growth and development,” Huntington said. “He has the physical tools to play there and when you get a guy that can play shortstop and swing the bat the way he’s swinging, h’s a very intriguing player down the road.”

Huntington also praised the tools from Jones, saying the Pirates are excited about his potential defensively, offensively, and on the bases. Jones is an interesting guy. He’s very athletic. He’s got a chance to play shortstop, and if he doesn’t work out there, he could play another up the middle position like second base or center field. He’s showing an ability to hit for some power, along with some speed. But none of this guarantees anything for Jones. The problem with being 22 is that there’s not much room for projected improvement. The power Jones has now is probably the power he’ll have going forward, and 20 homers in Low-A doesn’t mean 20 homers in the majors. You could say the same about every other stat and tool. From here, it’s most likely that the numbers from Jones go down as he moves up. The only question is whether he can keep the numbers up enough to be an effective player in the majors.

The combination of Jones learning shortstop and the power makes him a guy to dream on. But a lot of that dreaming is based on what you’d want to happen (a starting shortstop with power), and not what Jones can realistically do. We had Jones ranked 14th in the system in our mid-season update. That’s better than Allie was ranked last year, and it’s largely because Jones brings more value with his speed, ability to play tougher positions, and his athleticism. I don’t see Jones moving up much, even with the recent surge. If he can put up these same numbers in Double-A, while continuing to show that he might be able to stick at shortstop, then you’d be able to start talking about him as a future starter in the majors. For now, that’s a possibility, but it’s nowhere near as strong as his numbers indicate.

As an added note, Baseball Prospectus put up a scouting report on Jones today. I was planning on writing about Jones after his performance last night, and because of that, I held off reading Ethan Purser’s report until I finished this write up. Purser says that Jones could be a utility player in the majors. Based on the look at other 22-year-olds having success in Low-A, that seems to be the conservative view of what he could become. I wouldn’t rule out Jones becoming a starter, but I think the utility role is a much safer and much more accurate projection for him.

Prospect Reports

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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