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.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

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 AccuScore.com, 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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  • elgaupo

    At 21 Jordy Mercer hit .250/.297/.366 in low A. At 22 he hit .255/.314/.400 at high A.

    I think we could argue that someone in our own system got better offensively AND defensively so that he can be our starting SS for a couple year.

    Jones has the athletic ability to make it. Time will tell.

    • wkkortas

      That’s an interesting comparison–if Jordy Mercer is Jones’ floor (and I think it’s fair to say, as an aside, that Mercer doesn’t have that kind of athleticism) I think you’d take that at short.

      • ginbear

        I think Jones is a much bigger/boom bust prospect than Mercer was. His floor is probably something like Brandon Wood or the aforementioned Hermansen.

    • Leefoo Rug Bug

      Jordy did have better walk numbers and lower K numbers in those years than JJones.

  • S Brooks

    With the Marauders in the playoff hunt, would it be worth seeing what he could do at Bradenton, a more age-appropriate level? I know that Frazier is the everyday SS, but seeing as he is not rated as highly as Jones, nor is he hitting particularly well, would it be the worst idea in the world to promote JJ and have him split time with Frazier at SS? Frazier played a little 2B at Jamestown and they do still use the DH in the FSL, so there would be at-bats to go around.

  • http://batman-news.com NMR

    Frustrating to read a scouting report so similar to the book on him when he was drafted. Organization seemingly hasn’t been able to polish the swing or approach much at all in two years.

    • Leefoo Rug Bug

      NMR….we suck at development….didn’t you know that?

      Seriously, this kid has a long way to go, before we write him off OR proclaim him our next SS.

      Also, some prospects just never ‘get’ the strike zone and some improve. Countless examples of guys who would swing ‘at a pitch in the dugout’ who never improved.

      So, it is hard to say if it is OUR fault or the kid’s fault.

      • http://batman-news.com NMR

        No need to get so defensive, Foo. I never blamed the organization.
        .
        Fact is that the vast majority of these uber athletic, toolsy guys are just too raw to ever adjust and make it in the big leagues.

        • Lee Young

          NMR….I was hardly being defensive….Why would I? And actually, you did (Organization seemingly hasn’t been able to polish the swing or approach much at all in two years.)

          The first line was a joke (since Kyle Stark was pounded to death just a couple of years ago) which is why I followed it with “seriously”.

          But………then you say: “Fact is that the vast majority of these uber athletic, toolsy guys are just too raw to ever adjust and make it in the big leagues.”

          Then why bring up the development team to begin with (even tho I joked about it)? And then you bring it up again in your reply (the organization absolutely should be honest with themselves and understand what they’re good at and what they’re not. There just isn’t much evidence of them having success with this prospect type compared to say, a tall projectable high school pitcher. ).

          I would hazard an educated guess that EVERY organization gets these toolsy guys and hope they come around. That’s why you draft 30 guys….you hope you get lucky on a couple of them.

          I get Baseball America’s prospect book every year, and EVERY organization drafts these kinds of guys. It just isn’t the Pirates. And it isn’t a weakness of theirs to try to draft and develop them.

      • http://batman-news.com NMR

        With that being said, the organization absolutely should be honest with themselves and understand what they’re good at and what they’re not. There just isn’t much evidence of them having success with this prospect type compared to say, a tall projectable high school pitcher. Every org is bound to have strengths and weaknesses, and that’s fine.
        .
        I think you’re seeing an organizational plan coming together from the big leagues to the draft focusing on good plate discipline and quality at-bats.

      • leowalter

        You mean something like Pedro Alvarez ? He was chasing that breaking ball down and away when I saw him in AA,and it has only gotten progressively worse.

  • Simon Weaver

    You have to keep in mind Jones missed last year. Had he finished the year in WV he would’ve killed the Mercer statline below, been in Bradenton now, and the whole age talk would dissipate. The talk would be look at Jacoby Jones, he could easily be better than Mercer, looking at his natural ability and also comparitive stats from an age perspective. I don’t like the Allie comp bc he switched from pitcher to hitter, not just finding a more permanent position. Allie won’t make it. I don’t think Jones is a utility player at all. I am OK with his development thus far

  • Kevin_Young

    The Purser scouting reports…not claiming to know more than the guy, but his write up on Meadows is a bunch of shenanigans.

    • pittsburgh412

      Couldn’t agree more. I’m no scout but meadows looks way better to me then his
      Report indicated. He made meadows sound like a bum