By: Will Burchfield
Entering spring training, the Tigers looked to have a plan in centerfield.
Mikie Mahtook, Tyler Collins and Anthony Gose would compete for the starting job and JaCoby Jones would continue to iron out his game. The Tigers would wait for one of the former three to emerge or they’d settle on a platoon.
Either way, Jones, the promising 24-year-old, would start the season in Triple-A.
It was a nice plan. It was a smart plan.
But it wasn’t Jones’ plan.
That’s become more evident as spring training has progressed and it was crystal clear on Thursday when Jones collected two more hits – including a home run – stole two bases and played great defense in centerfield in the Tigers 5-3 win over the Braves. His spring training average now sits at .346.
The Tigers’ cautiousness with Jones rests largely on his bat. He whiffs too much, which means he strikes out too much. He struggles to stay within the strike zone, which means he struggles at times to get on base.
These flaws still exist, but Jones has seemed to smooth them out. He has four strikeouts over 27 plate appearances this spring, continuing the strides he made in the 2016 Arizona Fall League. Between the fall league and spring training, Jones has a strikeout rate of .17 over 92 plate appearances, compared to .29 over 413 plate appearances last season between Double-A, Triple-A and MLB.
But he hasn’t made any stark changes to his approach at the plate. It simply may be that by staying aggressive and swinging early, he’s avoiding two-strike counts.
When the count turned in the pitcher’s favor on Thursday, Jones showed an ability to stay alive.
It’s unlikely that Jones will ever be a highly disciplined, walk-oriented hitter. The key for him is cutting down on the whiffs to the point that he’s not giving away at-bats. Because when he makes contact, he can do things like this.
That was his first home run of the season. His second, which he smacked on Thursday, was another bomb.
While Jones has thrived in spring training, his competitors for the centerfield job have struggled. Mahtook is 5/33 (.152) with nine strikeouts, Collins is 6/29 (.207) with seven strikeouts and Gose is 7/28 (.250) with 11 strikeouts. Alex Presley and Juan Perez have both been much better, but it’s hard to see either of them filling more than a depth role for the Tigers.
Are we working with the best sample sizes? No. Should spring training numbers be taken with a grain of salt? Absolutely. Still, Jones is separating himself from the pack. He has the defensive tools the Tigers are looking for in centerfield and he’s rounding into shape at the plate.
Though the Tigers would rather see Jones start the year in Toledo, Jones – and those around him – are giving the Tigers every reason to bring him back to Detroit.