By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Five years ago on the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, Seattle Mariners scouts watched a talented prospect work out and had to make a tough decision.
The difficulty wasn’t in deciding whether or not they liked James Jones, it was in deciding which James Jones they liked. Did the Mariners like Jones the left-handed pitcher who, while raw, threw in the low-to-mid 90s, or did they like Jones, the speedy, athletic, left-handed hitting outfielder?
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, how many 6-foot-4, left/left guys who can throw like this and run like this are out there in the draft?’” said Tom McNamara, the Mariners’ director of amateur scouting. “We just said, ‘let’s take him as a position player.’”
And nearly five years after the Mariners selected Jones in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, that decision is looking pretty wise as Jones has become one of Seattle’s most exciting young players.
So the next time Jones makes a spectacular play in center field, or the next time he comes up with a big hit or makes something happen on the bases with his speed, just remember to thank the baseball gods that Jones didn’t have much in the way of movement on his fastball. Had Jones been just a bit more developed as a pitcher, he wouldn’t be the pleasant surprise of the Mariners 2014 season.
At least not as their leadoff hitter and center fielder, who came into Saturday night’s game with a .316 batting average and a 14-game hitting streak.
“He threw hard, but his fastball was flat, so he got roped a few times,” said John Suarez, the director of athletics at LIU Brooklyn. “He was 1-6 his last year or something like that. He got hit hard.”
Jones was open to anything that would get him to the big leagues, but was happy the team that picked him saw him as an outfielder.
“It was made for me,” Jones said with a laugh when asked about the decision to play outfield. “I would have been good with whatever way it went in the draft, but I knew the Mariners were looking at me as a position player, so I was very excited about that.”
And sure, Jones might have turned into a great pitcher — lefties who throw in the mid 90s are hardly common — but let’s face it, that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun as watching the player he has become. Great pitching is thrilling in its own right, and incredibly valuable, but there’s nothing quite like a player who can make fans stand up and cheer on a daily basis. And yes, raw power is fun, but so too is an outfielder crashing into the wall, or a speedster wreaking havoc on the base paths.
“That’s my goal — I want the pitcher to feel uncomfortable,” said Jones, who began his professional career with the Everett AquaSox. “I want them to be thinking about me more than the hitter so they can’t execute their pitches. That’s my goal on the bases, I want everybody to feel uncomfortable; I want the defense to feel like it has to be perfect.”
What Jones lacked in polish back in 2009, he had in potential in that hard-throwing left arm. Which is why plenty of teams were interested in him a developmental pitching prospect. And while Jones progressed steadily, through not rapidly through the minor leagues, even the Mariners, who liked him as an outfielder, had it in the back of their minds that he could pitch if things didn’t work out for him as a position player.
“There were times during his minor league career where it was like, you know what?” McNamara said. “But he did enough throughout his minor league career to keep everyone interested. In the back of your mind you knew he threw 93, 94 miles per hour, but there just aren’t a lot of players with that type of toolset and makeup.”
And that makeup consists of more than just the athletic ability that is so easy to spot when Jones patrols center field or runs the bases.
“He has aptitude, and he has a flair about him,” McNamara said. “He’s enthusiastic about the game. We talk about that with our scouts all the time; players who are enthusiastic on the field, they have a different spark to them, and it’s contagious.”
Of course before we get too carried away about Jones, it’s worth remembering he has played all of 20 games in his major league career. Struggles will come eventually, and how he responds to that will be just as important as the hot start that quickly made him the Mariners’ leadoff hitter.
But there will be plenty of time to worry about that when those struggles actually come. Until then, just be thankful that Jones had a hart time getting batters out as that raw lefty five years ago. A little more movement on that fastball, and Jones would probably be pitching for the Mariners or some other team, and the Mariners would still be searching for a center fielder and leadoff hitter.
“It’s exciting to have a player like that,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He played extremely well in spring training, and he continues to play well now.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.