Detroit Tigers' JaCoby Jones eyeing CF spot: 'Thought about it a lot'

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press
Detroit Tigers rookie JaCoby Jones watches his RBI double against the Chicago White Sox on Aug. 30, 2016, in Detroit.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- JaCoby Jones has thought about it.

About the off-season. About spring training. About starting in centerfield for the Detroit Tigers on Opening Day next season.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said. “Ever since (Cameron) Maybin got traded. So it’s been stuck around in my head, knowing that I’ll have a chance to be the Opening Day guy. That’s something a lot of guys dream about doing.”

Jones’ dream is close to becoming a reality. After the Tigers traded Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels, Jones profiles as the leading candidate in a competition with Tyler Collins and Anthony Gose.

But Jones has been careful not to consider it a probability. Playing in the Arizona Fall League this off-season, he knows that there is a long way between November and April.

“I just know that we have an open outfield spot,” he said. “It’s going to be fun, and I know I have a good chance if I can just play my game. The Tigers want me to do whatever I can to help the team win. It should be a fun spring and challenging to compete for the centerfield spot.”

Jones has looked the part in Arizona, both in his numbers and in the number on the back of his jersey. For the second consecutive AFL season, Jones is wearing No. 4 -- Maybin's number -- with the Salt River Rafters.

“I was like, ‘That’s the number I can use next year, since Maybin’s not going to be here,’” he said. “So I guess I’ll have to call (clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel) to see if I can get No. 4.”

In 18 games this fall, Jones is hitting .348 with one home run and five stolen bases. Double-A Erie hitting coach Phil Clark has seen the same kind of instincts in centerfield that onlookers saw in his baserunning this past season.

Offensively, Jones likely isn’t ready for a full-time major league job. He had only 28 big-league at-bats last season. But if he can play centerfield at Comerica Park and run the bases, he offers an intriguing option for the Tigers, who are cutting costs and won’t have much money to splurge on a centerfielder.

His brief time in the major leagues, Jones said, was critical for his development.

“It’s a lot different knowing that you went out there and you experienced it, so you kind of know what it’s like, in a way,” he said. “I kind of know how things go and how things work, so I think this off-season is big for me, coming out here and doing pretty good so far."

Jones said that time was important because he was able to see the way to prepare. He lockered next to Maybin and credited leftfielder Justin Upton and second baseman Ian Kinsler with showing him the ropes.

Preparation is the single biggest thing Clark, who is coaching with the Rafters, is trying to pound into Jones.

“He’s a talented ballplayer,” Clark said. “It’s just a matter of learning how to prepare himself every day so he can stay consistent. That’s the biggest statement I want to make with him is consistency. Showing up and letting his ability to play out. Part of that, the ability to be a good ballplayer at the major league level, is preparation.”

The preparation is two-fold: Mental preparation, such as scouting opposing pitchers and tendencies, and physical preparation, the tedious work that can get overlooked by a young player.

In 2016, Jones started at Erie before quickly getting promoted to Triple-A Toledo. The 24-year-old hit .257 with seven home runs and 13 stolen bases in the minors. He finished with the Tigers, making an early impact but getting limited playing time down the stretch.

He has worked on being more balanced in the batter’s box this fall.

“Simplifying my approach and making more contact,” he said. “Trying to get on base as much as possible and use my speed.”

On the bases, “I just like to cause havoc,” he said. “I like to put pressure on the defense.”

In short, he is a younger, less experienced and less polished option than Maybin. Jones counts the former Tiger as his biggest influence in the clubhouse last season.

“He’s pretty much like a big brother to me,” Jones said. “We had a lot of conversations, and he showed me the way. So I just followed him.”

And he hopes to follow him into centerfield next season.

Tigers prospect Adam Ravenelle pitching well in Arizona

Contact Anthony Fenech: Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech.