For the past couple of seasons, I have been very critical of Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones, and with good reason.
After bursting onto the scene in with 21 homers in 82 games in the 2009 season, Jones did very little to convince anyone the following two seasons that he was anything more than a bench player with some pop. That especially rang true last season when Jones he posted lines of only .243 AVG/.321 OBP/.754 OPS and hit 16 homers with 58 RBI in part-time duty.
The 2010 season wasn’t much better although Jones did knock in a career-high 86 runs.
The major problem with Jones has been consistency and I don’t necessarily mean in terms of numbers. While he got hot and could carry the Pirates offense for 2-3 week stretches at a time, the rest of the time Jones had trouble turning in average major league at-bats.
Then there’s the fact that you can’t play him anywhere in the field as he’s an average-to-below average defensive player on a good day and is just an abysmal base runner.
Everything about his game screams average major league player that shouldn’t be an everyday player in any MLB lineup, and likely wouldn’t be if not for the Pirates’ ridiculous love affair with a guy who really hasn’t done much to help their team do what is most important: win baseball games.
But while all signs probably pointed to this being Jones’ last season in a Pirates uniform, he’s opened up even my eyes with what so far has been a very good 2012 campaign.
Jones not only has turned in lines of .292/.332/.882 but has become a consistent run producer in the middle of the Bucs’ lineup, smacking a career-high 23 long balls to go with 75 RBI at this point of the season.
However, there’s that word again: consistency.
That’s something Jones has never shown the ability to do, become a consistent major league hitter. But that’s not the case this season as Jones hasn’t just turned in consistent at bats from game-to-game, but confident ones as well.
Doing so, Jones has gone from a guy who could have been purged from this roster at any point during the past two seasons (and early on this year) to a guy who has earned himself a spot in the middle of the Pirates batting order next season.
Since Adam LaRoche was dealt – and like him or not, LaRoche put up decent numbers – the Bucs have been looking for production from their first baseman. That’s something Jones hasn’t done until this season, but he can end up putting up numbers that are LaRoche-like and that’s just fine for this Pirates team.
Comparing the two players this season:
LaRoche: 28 HRs, 90 RBI, .848 OPS, 544 PAs
Jones: 23 HRs, 75 RBIs, .882 OPS, 419 PAs
They are near the same age as LaRoche is 32 and Jones is 31, but the huge difference is that LaRoche makes $8 million while Jones makes $2.2 million. That’s good production for the dollar.
But I didn’t write this to necessarily compare Jones to LaRoche but instead to look at the difference between Jones now and the past couple of seasons.
For one, Jones has only 3.5 years of major league at bats. That’s something that people forget because of his age: Jones is still relativley new to big league baseball.
Because of that, his approach has gotten better with time. He’s recognizing pitches better and barreling up a lot more balls, hitting them with authority.
Next, give some credit to Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle.
The Pirates roster is better this season than at anytime during Jones’ tenure and that allows Hurdle the opportunity to pick and choose when to use Jones. Hurdle not only keeps Jones away from tough southpaws, but also keeps his cleanup hitter fresh and out of extended slumps by not having to run him out there on an everyday basis.
Finally there’s the Gaby Sanchez trade.
Often when an athlete feels threatened, his performance picks up. Jones knows Sanchez was brought in to be the likely first baseman of the future and since the trade deadline, he’s let his hitting do the talking for him, putting up a .323/.376/1.001 split with six homers and 23 RBI in August and has followed that up with a .529/.619/1.334 line through five games in September.
For the Pirates, things could be as simple as Jones has figured things out and this is the type of production he will reward them with going forward.
However there are risks involved.
Jones will be 32 next season and a majority of the time a player doesn’t get better in his 30s. More often than not players regress at that age and that’s something the Pirates simply can’t afford for the next couple of seasons.
Then there’s the fact that there’s no real position on the field to hide Jones. But that’s fine if Jones is hitting well. There’s nothing wrong with Hurdle getting three or four at bats out of Jones and then replacing him with a better glove after seven innings.
However it all goes back to consistency. Until this season he’s a player that’s had trouble putting together consistent months back-to-back.
Is he capable of putting together consistent back-to-back seasons? Or multiple ones?
There will certainly be some doubts about that, but one thing is for sure and that Jones at least has earned the opportunity to find out.