Pirates' Jones proving to be worth the wait
Maybe Garrett Jones simply got tired of being labeled a minor league lifer.
Blessed with what Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell calls a low-maintenance swing, Jones produced constantly in the minor leagues, yet kept getting overlooked. First baseman Adam LaRoche passed him by in the Braves' organization, Justin Morneau passed him with the Twins.
Jones hit 31 home runs in the minors at age 23, 24 at age 24 - 76 in a three-season span. It didn't matter. Prospect after prospect kept getting called up, but Jones stayed and stayed at Triple-A Rochester.
``Everybody takes different routes, but ...'' Jones said.
Even that sweet swing couldn't seem to get him out of the minors. Playing winter ball in Venezuela didn't help. At least not until one of the majors' worst teams finally gave him a no-risk, no-obligation opportunity to prove he could hit big league pitching.
After signing as a minor league free agent last year, Jones hit 21 homers in 314 at-bats for the Pirates at age 28, making fans wonder what he might accomplish over a full season.
They're about to find out. So is he.
``After you've had that pressure on you, you have the expectations that you have to have a big season the next season,'' Jones said. ``But I feel like I don't have any pressure going into this season. Just go play, stay focused like I did last year, have fun and let the numbers take care of themselves.''
Those numbers - .293 average, 21 homers, 44 RBIs and a .567 slugging percentage in 82 games following his July 1 recall - excite the Pirates, even if they're not ready to predict that they project into 40 homers over 162 games.
``He's got tremendous power to all fields,'' Russell said. ``He's a definite threat.''
For now, the Pirates will send him to right field most days, plug him into the No. 3 spot in the batting order - directly behind Andrew McCutchen - and hope that low-maintenance swing keeps producing.
That McCutchen and Jones will hit in succession is intriguing, given their disparate backgrounds. McCutchen was a first-round draft pick in 2005 and a supposed no-miss prospect before he hit .286 with 12 homers, 54 RBIs and stole 22 bases in 108 games as a rookie in 2009.
The left handed-hitting Jones was drafted 11 years ago by the Braves, but spent eight years in the minors before being called up, and that was for only 31 games with Minnesota in 2007.
``Cutch, being a first-rounder and a great athlete, he got moved up a little quicker,'' Jones said. ``Me, I needed a little more time to develop. I did it at the minor league level instead of the big league level. But he has so much potential, and I still feel like I have a lot to work on and improve on.''
Defense is one of those areas: Jones is primarily a first baseman, but the Pirates need him to play the outfield so they can get a look at prospect Jeff Clement at first.
Also, despite hitting for power, Jones had a relatively low RBI total because he hit .152 with runners in scoring position.
That's why, despite his circuitous and discouraging-at-times journey to the majors, Jones isn't about to say he's arrived. Even if only four players hit more homers than he did after July 1: Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Derrek Lee and Mark Reynolds.
And there's this: Only Jones and the Yankees' Kevin Maas (21 homers in 1990) had 20-homer seasons in the majors without homering before July 1. Jones must be hoping his career turns out better; Maas ended his in 1995 with 65 homers.
Jones hit 10 homers in his first 75 at-bats then, after pitchers began adjusting to try to take away his power, he hit .309 with five homers in September.
``I kind of took the approach to enjoy every game, just play your heart out every game, stay focused and we'll worry about the next game in the future,'' Jones said. ``I still really had to stay on my toes, thinking that someone was trying to take my job. I think that's how I have always been - no matter what, you never want to take anything for granted.''