“Is baseball any fun for you?” Hinch asked.
They laughed. But Jones was frustrated.
Jones wasn’t in the lineup for Game 2 — Hinch went with utility player Niko Goodrum in left field, rookie sensation Akil Baddoo in center field and veteran Robbie Grossman in right field — and has only played 12 of 19 games this season.
When everyone is healthy, Hinch has five outfielders at his disposal: Baddoo, Grossman, Jones, Nomar Mazara (10-day injured list) and Victor Reyes, plus two do-it-all defenders in Goodrum and Harold Castro. Analytics aid some of Hinch’s decision-making, but he also rewards in-game success.
“He’s been a regular player for the last few years and now he’s found himself fighting for playing time,” Hinch said. “His attitude has been good, but the results haven’t really matched that. He’s been put to the side a little bit with some other guys.”
Not playing daily is a new concept to Jones. He missed the conclusions of the 2019 and 2020 seasons because of a fractured wrist and fractured hand, respectively. Before those injuries, he was the no-doubt starting center fielder.
That is no longer true for Jones in 2021. He is hitting .176 with one double, one home run, two RBIs, one walk and 11 strikeouts through 12 games. He made starts in nine of those games — eight times in center field and once in left field.
“It takes a toll on you,” Jones said. “When you’re not playing every day, and other people are having success, and you’re just sitting there on the bench, it’s a tough feeling. … Just got to stay positive and keep grinding. I mean, it’s still early. I’ve got a long way to go.”
The Tigers realized the outfield would be jammed during spring training, after signing Grossman (two years, $10 million) and Mazara (one year, $1.75 million) this winter. Then Baddoo, a Rule 5 draft pick, forced the organization to carry five outfielders. Baddoo, 22, must stay on the active roster for the entire season or be offered back to the Minnesota Twins.
Through 14 games, Baddoo has a .295 batting average, four homers and 13 RBIs. He has made five starts in center field, five starts in left field and three starts in right field. Jones and Baddoo have started alongside each other just three times.
“It’s a tough feeling,” Jones said. “The key in this game is hitting. They’ll find a spot for you if you keep hitting. I just have to keep grinding, keep working in the cage, and the hits will fall. They’ll come. I know what I can do on the field.”
Jones reminded the Tigers of his value in Thursday’s 4-2 loss in the series finale. He went 2-for-4 with a game-tying home run in the bottom of the fifth inning against Pirates starter Mitch Keller, snapping a 1-for-22 streak. It was his first multihit game since Aug. 29, 2020.
His seventh-inning single should have given the Tigers the lead, but Baddoo — after cranking a double — hesitated while running and was stopped at third base by coach Chip Hale. The next two batters failed to drive him home.
Defensively, Jones tracked a 412-foot line drive from Todd Frazier, made an epic over-the-head catch and crashed into the wall to take away extra bases.
“That was a huge play,” Jones said. “The wind was blowing out, but usually in the cold weather, the ball doesn’t fly as much to center. But Frazier hit that ball really hard. I knew it was going to stay in the park, so I knew I had a chance when I saw it off the bat.”
Tigers starter Jose Urena tipped his hat.
“When I got close to the wall, I probably could’ve stopped,” Jones said. “But I probably would have hurt my hamstring or something. Just go at it and lower the shoulder.”
That’s a catch only Jones — among the five outfielders — could consistently make in center field. He owns the cheat codes to the Comerica Park greens and sacrifices himself for the greater good of the team, even to the point of being reckless.
But for the first time in a few years, Jones is adjusting to outfield competition. His highlight-reel plays in center field won’t deliver him back into the daily starting lineup.
The best way to get what he wants is to produce on offense.
“I can see why it’s been a struggle for him,” Hinch said. “But when he gets in there, we need to start contributing a little bit more and get back to contributing on both sides of the ball.”