03/08/09 7:27 PM EST
Jones hopes to break through
Non-roster invitee vying for a bench spot with Pirates
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
Jones arrived in Bradenton after having spent the previous seven seasons in the Twins' organization. He was an intriguing offseason signing by the Pirates because of his power potential, but he'll be the first to admit that he's still a work in progress.
Some would argue that the biggest problem has just been the unfortunate luck of being stuck behind some good players in another system. But if you ask Jones, 27, what it's going to take to make that final step up from Triple-A to the big leagues, he is quite honest in his self-assessment.
"My discipline at the plate and being consistent and having good at-bats day in and day out is what I need to do," Jones started. "It's more mental with me than physical. I sometimes put too much pressure on myself instead of just playing. I just need to go up there and stay loose and have fun. I think when I do that is when I can really hit the ball the way I should be."
And as things stand now, the Pirates certainly like the way Jones hits the ball.
It's that run-producing potential that appealed to the Pirates this offseason as they looked to accumulate some more high Minor League depth. Jones, who stands as an imposing presence at 6-foot-4 and is a left-handed hitter, caught some eyes.
"I like Garrett," manager John Russell said. "He has a good at-bat with guys on base. He always had big hits. He can play the outfield. He can play first. He obviously has some pop in his bat."
But the inability to produce regardless of what the situation is still plagues Jones. He explained it as a focus issue. When runners are on base, Jones said he has no trouble zeroing in on the task at hand. Without the bases occupied, however, Jones has not been able to figure out exactly how to maintain his focus.
"I think subconsciously I go up there with men on base and I feel more relaxed and I feel like the pitcher has to come to me," Jones explained. "Without men on base, I kind of lose my approach and sometimes swing for the fences. I will swing at balls I shouldn't and start giving away at-bats. That's been my problem. I give away too many at-bats throughout the season."
As a result, his numbers over the past few years can be a bit deceiving, as his run production masks some of those consistency struggles.
In 2005, Jones' first season at Triple-A, he finished the year with 72 RBIs and 24 homers in 134 games. His season average, though, was just .244. A year later, his season batting average dipped to .238, though he still knocked 21 homers and drove in 92 in 140 games.
Jones drove in 92 runs again last year in a 23-homer season and finished with a .279 average. Jones led the International League in total bases, tied for third in the league in doubles (33) and tied for second in extra-base hits (59).
It was with this goal of improved consistency that Jones arrived in Bradenton, looking for a fresh opportunity to break through. That was an opportunity that Jones never really received with the Twins.
With plenty of young talent in Minnesota's outfield and Justin Morneau entrenched at first base, Jones really never had much opportunity to test out his abilities at the Major League level. Jones first ascended to the Twins' Triple-A affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., in '05, but was trapped there for almost all of his four seasons.
"I just felt kind of stuck behind some guys," Jones said. "They had their guys coming up, and I was just in the wrong situation over there. It was just time to try out the waters and see what else was out there."
His only taste of the Majors came in 2007, when Jones appeared in 31 games for Minnesota.
"Is this one of those guys that got stuck behind some pretty good players?," general manager Neal Huntington asked. "We think there's a chance. Scouts saw him last year and thought he was a Major League player. We brought him in, and he's taken advantage of the opportunity that he's been given so far and has shown some good things."
The Pirates are eyeing Jones as a potentially versatile bench player right now. Though he is a natural first baseman, Jones has had extensive experience in the outfield as well. He has played 157 games as an outfielder in the Minors and would be an option as a backup in right field should Jones dent the Major League roster.
"I feel really good in the outfield right now," Jones said. "In the last few years, I've been working out there a lot."
Jones has seen playing time both at first base and in right field already this spring and entered Sunday's game 5-for-15 with one RBI.
As things stand now, it's looking like Jones is one of six players vying for the final two bench spots. In that group are Jeff Salazar and Craig Monroe, both of whom could be used exclusively as outfielders. There's also Jones and Steve Pearce, both of whom would be able to fill in at first base or in right field. Luis Cruz and Andy Phillips are also getting a serious look because of their versatility to play just about anywhere in the infield or outfield.
"I'm just trying to make the most of it," Jones said of the opportunity this spring. "I'm trying to have good at-bats and just trying to show what I can do and try to open some eyes."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.