By Will Burchfield
The Tigers seemed to have a solid plan regarding center field entering the 2017 season.
They were searching for good defense, with the assumption that they had enough offense elsewhere to carry the load. In the vast outfield at Comerica Park, a reliable glove in center can be as valuable as a strong bat.
JaCoby Jones was the starting center fielder on Opening Day, flashing his terrific range on a near-daily basis. But when he struggled at the plate and then ended up on the disabled list in late April after being struck in the face by a pitch, the Tigers opted to send him to Triple-A Toledo.
He was briefly recalled in May while the team was dealing with some injuries, but was sent back down on Tuesday.
In Jones’ place, the Tigers have used a carousel of center fielders, none of them much better than average, some of them much worse. Andrew Romine has been the steadiest of the group, but the advanced metrics don’t love him. Mikie Mahtook has the best tools, but the Tigers haven’t played him much in center. Tyler Collins was designated for assignment last month. Alex Presley was called up in his place.
The common theme among all of them is they can’t really hit. Jones can’t either, of course, not from what he’s shown at the big-league level to date. Over 35 MLB games, the 25-year-old owns a .165 average, a .502 OPS and 38 strikeouts. His numbers were even worse this year, the strikeouts even more glaring.
But Jones is a terrific center fielder. He’s got a strong arm and elite range. He’s athletic as they come. If that’s what the Tigers are looking for in center, it would behoove them to hand Jones the reins and live with his offensive lumps.
“It sounds like a great idea unless he really struggles offensively and you destroy the kid’s confidence, so it’s a balance,” said manager Brad Ausmus. “You definitely want the best team possible at the major league level, because that’s where it’s most important to win, but we also have a guy in JaCoby Jones who we think can be a good player in the long term.
“So do you risk destroying his confidence in the near term, thus changing the career path of a young, talented player?”
Jones has fared much better at the plate in Triple-A Toledo. Over 24 games he’s hitting .265 with a .719 OPS. He hasn’t struck out nearly as often as he did in the majors.
“I think it’s probably best that he go down there and learn himself, work on his game and develop,” said Aumus, “rather than throwing him in the fire here and having him struggle at the major-league level.”
In the meantime, the Tigers will make do with what they’ve got. It will be mostly Romine and Presley against right-handed pitchers, mostly Mahtook against lefties.
Jones can outplay all of them in the outfield, but the Tigers aren’t willing to jeopardize his future for the present.