Pirates' Jones: Better late than never
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The long-term numbers, as they relate to the Pirates' Garrett Jones, might support a naysaying outlook on his future.
He is 28, quite old for someone making his first impact in Major League Baseball. He has spent most of the past five seasons in Class AAA, an eternity in a prospect's lifespan. He has a .258 average over 1,038 minor league games, and his 158 home runs represent a modest ratio of one every 24 at-bats.
And yet, quite clearly, for now, the eyes have it.
"We like what we see," Pirates manager John Russell said in advance of his team resuming play tonight at PNC Park against the San Francisco Giants. "He's a big guy, obviously, with some power, some speed, and he's done a lot of good things."
In an 11-game sample size since Jones was promoted from Class AAA Indianapolis June 30, that is indisputable: He is batting .310 after instantly taking to a heart-of-the-order role, and has five home runs, including one in each of the three games leading into tonight. He also has seven RBIs and is 3 for 3 in steals.
All that, and, as Russell suggested, he has simply looked good doing all of the above. He is 6 feet 4, 240 pounds, standing out in a lineup that is among the National League's least powerful. He runs well enough to have those steals and cover acceptable ground in the outfield. And his attitude, by all accounts, is beyond reproach.
• Game: Pirates vs. San Francisco Giants, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (6-4, 4.60) vs. RHP Tim Lincecum (10-2, 2.33).
• Season series: First meeting. Last year, the Pirates were 4-2 against the Giants.
• Key matchup: Lincecum's excellence includes a National League-best 149 strikeouts and .215 opponents' average.
• Of note: The Pirates lost their first four after the All-Star break last year, 12 of the first 19.
So, which type of late bloomer is he?
Adam Hyzdu, popular and productive in the minors but a flameout in the majors?
Or Mike "Hit Man" Easler, whose first full season in the majors came at age 29 with the Pirates in 1980, and who went on to a .293 career average?
"Honestly, my age isn't something I think about," Jones said. "The way I feel about my age, I feel great physically, and I know there are a lot of years left for me."
A lot also are in the past, including a decade in the minors beginning with his first professional season in 1999. Atlanta, the team that drafted him in the 14th round, released him in 2002 after injuries limited him to 143 total games in his first three seasons. Minnesota picked him up, and his promise began to show: 30 home runs and a .311 average in Class AA in 2004, followed by seasons of 24, 21 and 13 home runs for Class AAA Rochester, where he became that team's most popular player.
In 2007, the Twins gave him a 31-game look, but he batted .208 with two home runs.
Russell saw plenty of Jones while managing Philadelphia's Class AAA affiliate in Ottawa.
"I didn't like facing him," Russell recalled. "He was one of those guys you always thought could hurt you a lot of different ways."
So, why was he not hurting anyone in the majors?
Jones spent all of last year with Rochester, and the common view was that he was blocked in the Minnesota system by Justin Morneau at first base, his primary position, and Michael Cuddyer, among others, in the corner outfield spots. But the Twins did not gain their reputation as being superb at development by stunting deserving players.
"I was just trying to be patient, not get a bad attitude or wonder why I'm not getting a chance," Jones said. "That's when you start being negative. That's when you let the game beat you. I just wanted to take care of my numbers and, hopefully, I'd get a shot."
When Jones became a minor league free agent this past offseason, the Pirates pursued him most aggressively and signed him.
"We had a couple good scouting reports over the last couple of years, and J.R. remembered liking him as a big, strong athlete and player," general manager Neal Huntington said. "The fact that he was kind of stuck behind Morneau and Cuddyer reminded me of Casey Blake when the Indians gave him his break."
Blake, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, broke through Cleveland's system at age 29 and immediately turned in seasons of 28 and 23 home runs.
"Lastly, he had some interesting statistical indicators," Huntington added. "Ultimately, Garrett deserves the credit for opening eyes in spring training, then sustaining his performance at Indianapolis. His biggest challenge, obviously, will be sustaining performance at the major league level."
Huntington did not specify those statistical indicators, but here are some off-the-beaten-path numbers the Pirates surely have liked from Jones during this 11-game tear:
• Of those five home runs, four have come against left-handed pitching. The lone right-handed victim was Philadelphia's Joe Blanton, who was otherwise untouched in 7 1/3 innings July 10.
• Four of the five have come on mediocre fastballs, but the one July 4 off Florida's Andrew Miller, was off a cutter.
• He is the first to homer in his first 11 games with the Pirates since Daryle Ward did it in 2004.
• He has at least one hit in nine of the 11 games, a sign of consistency.
• Although he has drawn only four walks, he has been effectively patient. Consider that he has put the first pitch into play only six times and has four hits -- two home runs, a triple and a double -- among them.
Hitting coach Don Long praised Jones for making what Long described as a significant adjustment in spring training.
"I thought he was really... almost stiff in what he was doing when we first saw him, very upright in his upper body, mechanical in his movement to the ball," Long said. "Part of our plan in the spring was to have him set up in a position where he could be more athletic, loosen up, have some more rhythm to what he's doing. I think that's helped make him feel like he can be ready to fire from the first pitch on."
The power, Jones said, comes fairly naturally.
"As long as I put a nice, smooth swing on the ball and try to barrel it up, it usually can go out," he said. "But I'm really not swinging for the fences. Usually, when I do, I pop up or roll it over or swing and miss. Right now, I'm feeling good at the plate, just trying to do some damage. I'm feeling comfortable."
That, Jones said, came from his time as a power forward at Andrew High School in Tinley Park, Ill.
"I played a lot of basketball. I was actually one of the taller guys. I grew late, got kind of long and lanky and a little clumsy as a senior, so I had to work extra hard on the footwork."
He laughed with that, though not too loudly, and that might be telling, too: The Pirates are 2-9 in Jones' 11 games and, despite his torrid start, he has maintained a low, humble profile befitting baseball's culture for newcomers.
He was asked if he is beginning to feel more comfortable.
"That's not how I'm looking at this. Right now, I'm trying not to get too high, take every game like it's my last game here. Play to win. Do the best I can."
First Published July 17, 2009 12:00 am