One of the big topics in the Pirates’ minor league system this year will be the development of JaCoby Jones at shortstop. Jones was drafted as an outfielder after playing center field and second base throughout his college career. The Pirates had bigger plans for him, going back to his high school days when he played shortstop, and hoping that his athleticism could allow him to play the position again.
This is the second season that Jones has been at shortstop, and the first one where I’ve gotten the chance to see him often at the position. I heard a lot of mixed reports last year, with some scouts saying that Jones could stick at the position, while others thought he’d be better off at second base.
Of course, the future position for Jones is important because of his bat. He has the potential to provide some power from the middle infield, which is rare. Last year he hit for a .288/.347/.503 line with 23 homers in 501 plate appearances. The downside here was that he struck out 26.3% of the time and walked just 6.6% of the time. This year he has a .262/.352/.430 line. The power has dropped a bit, with a .168 ISO, but the walks have increased to 11.5% and the strikeouts have stayed relatively at the same level, with a slight drop to 25.4%.
My early reaction on Jones is that he does have the skills to stick at shortstop. He doesn’t have a plus arm, but it’s good enough to make the long throw. His athleticism gives him a ton of range, especially charging in on balls, and ranging to the second base side of the bag. However, his footwork and glove work could use some additional work.
The Pirates are already working on some adjustments with Jones to improve his efficiency. Last week they started working with him to clean his set up. Jones was setting up late, which caused slower reaction times and a slower first step when the ball came off the bat.
“He’s been setting up pretty much right on time with the pitcher, ball out of the hand,” Bradenton manager Michael Ryan said of how Jones is doing with the change. “It just helps his first step quickness, and his range has improved since.”
In the opening series of the year, I saw Jones range to the back of the bag to field a grounder up the middle. He got to the ball, but booted it and couldn’t make the play. Jones was in bad position to field the ball, arriving to the ball with enough time to make an attempt at it, but not with enough time to set up properly for that attempt. The result was that he was still moving to his left, which made it difficult for him to make any kind of adjustments to field the ball when it got to him.
I saw a similar play last Friday with another ball hit up the middle. This time around, Jones got to the ball quicker, and was able to put himself in better position, setting for the ball, and making the throw to first for the out.
“Good athletes will be able to make that adjustment quickly,” Ryan said. “That’s what he has the advantage of doing.”
The next time I saw Jones was on Tuesday in a 15 inning game. The length of the game provided plenty of fielding opportunities. He had two errors, neither of which were due to his setup, but due to the glove work. I was impressed this game by the range he showed, specifically charging balls that were softly hit, and making the play. This skill was a direct result of his time in West Virginia.
“He’s always been good at that,” Ryan said. “Last year, that’s what he did so well in West Virginia. He came and got everything. The field wasn’t the best, so he felt better if he would come and get things. He became very good at that.”
The field in West Virginia has been upgraded this year, and is considerably better than before, so future shortstops might not get that same experience. But that experience for Jones last year definitely paid off, as he looked very smooth on continuous plays where he either had to charge toward the mound, or move to his left to field the ball in front of the bag. There was only one play where he missed, and that would have required a perfect scoop and a perfect throw to get the runner.
There won’t be a lot of competition for Jones at shortstop in the Pirates’ system. Cole Tucker is behind him, but won’t be moving up to Bradenton until next year at the earliest. Adam Frazier is ahead of him in Altoona, and might prevent him from moving up this year. However, if Frazier isn’t ready to move up to Indianapolis next year, he won’t hold Jones back. And if Jones starts to fine tune the defense, while continuing to hit, no one can really hold him back from moving up a level.
The early signs for Jones continue to be encouraging defensively. Any hope of him sticking at shortstop is still based on projection, rather than current performance. That said, my opinion is that he’s got a good foundation (strong enough arm, good range, good routes to the ball), and he’s athletic enough to improve on the weaker areas (footwork, glove work). He’s got the right combination of tools and potential to be a guy who can stick at shortstop without being a big liability.