In the bottom of the eighth inning Saturday night, Twins outfielder Delmon Young hit a deep fly to center with two men on base. Instead of sprinting to the warning track and making the catch, Adam Jones mistakenly broke in on the ball and never recovered as it bounced on the warning track for an automatic double.
The misplay eventually led to three runs, giving Minnesota an insurmountable 6-1 lead as the Twins took the second game of a doubleheader.
It was just the latest misstep in a miserable season for both the 24-year-old center fielder and the Orioles (9-22). Jones’ immense struggles epitomize how badly 2010 has gone for a club supposedly climbing toward respectability and contention.
And while the club has played a little better of late, winning five of its last nine, Jones continues to scuffle through early-season misery.
A Gold Glove winner and member of the 2009 All-Star team, Jones was supposed to continue his path to superstardom in 2010 and be the player around which the Orioles could build a contending club. It’s clear the Orioles agreed.
But instead of improving upon his 2009 campaign, the outfielder has regressed dramatically, hitting just .227 with three home runs and seven runs batted in over 132 at-bats. His .250 on-base percentage has offered no relief for the absence of Brian Roberts in the leadoff spot of the lineup.
Jones has even struggled with the glove, misreading fly balls and looking lackadaisical in the outfield at times.
One might opine that it’s nothing more than a poor start, but Jones’ problems at the plate started long before the All-Star break last season. Through the first two months of 2009, Jones was hitting an impressive .344 with 11 homers, 36 RBI, and a staggering 1.005 OPS. It was hard not to be excited about the future prospects of a 23-year-old with such dynamic ability.
However, the calendar turned to June, and Jones hasn’t sniffed the same success since. In his 422 total at-bats since June 1, 2009 (Jones missed the final month of 2009 with an ankle injury), he has hit just .232 with 11 homers and 41 RBI. His .282 on-base percentage reflects a player with poor plate discipline, as we’ve seen this season where he’s accumulated just three walks compared to 29 strikeouts.
When examining Jones’ struggles since June of last season, we’re no longer looking at a bad start but instead observing a talented player arriving at a dangerous crossroads in his young career.
So what exactly is the problem with Adam Jones?
There’s no simple answer.
It’s clear the American League has figured out Jones’ inability to lay off the low-and-away breaking ball. While his pitch recognition is questionable, Jones’ long swing forces him to start his swing sooner than most, making it very difficult to pick up the spin of the breaking ball early enough to lay off.
Jones is at his best when he shortens his swing and uses the opposite field, as we saw him do early in the 2009 season.
Despite the heavy criticism laid upon him this year, it’s hard to envision hitting coach Terry Crowley and the rest of the Baltimore coaching staff not picking up on this.
Is Jones unable—or unwilling—to make the adjustments with his swing?
It’s no secret Jones was reluctant to heed the advice of the coaching staff to play deeper in center during spring training. If coachability continues to be an issue, the Orioles have no choice but to send the outfielder to the minor leagues—tremendous talent or not.
Perhaps a message needs to be sent to the 24-year-old that major-league success isn’t bred on talent alone. He needs to make the necessary adjustments at the big-league level to be successful.
If he isn’t willing to do so in Baltimore, perhaps the picture will become clearer in Norfolk.
Another factor potentially contributing to his immense struggles is his strong—if not obsessive—desire to be a leader on the team. If you’ve paid attention to any of Jones’ comments over the last year, it’s clear the outfielder views himself as a natural-born leader and wants to take that role in the clubhouse.
Jones needs to remember true leadership cannot be forced or simply assumed because he wants to do it. The young outfielder has far too many issues with his own game to be concerned with becoming the leader of the clubhouse. If he is truly suited to assume a leadership role, it will happen, but only after the appropriate timetable when his teammates recognize him as such.
How do the Orioles help to fix Jones’ problems and preserve a successful path for a player with more athletic ability than anyone else on the club?
Manager Dave Trembley has already taken the first step. After hypothesizing that hitting in the leadoff spot would force Jones to change his approach and take more pitches, it’s clear the experiment has failed miserably. He’s hitting just .188 with 15 strikeouts and a .224 on-base percentage in 15 games at the top spot in the order this year.
Jones has been dropped to seventh in the order for the last two games, hopefully alleviating the pressure of hitting at or near the top of the lineup.
If he fails to respond hitting lower in the order over the next couple weeks, you have to consider what seemed to be the unthinkable a year ago at this time: sending Jones to the minors.
If the Orioles decide to go that route with Jones, it shouldn’t be viewed as a death sentence for the career of what is still a 24-year-old with loads of potential.
Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle was sent down to the minors after struggling in New York. He went on to hit 536 homers.
Cy Young Award winner—and arguably the best pitcher on the planet today—Roy Halladay was sent to the minors in 2001 to completely rebuild his mechanics. It’s safe to say it didn’t ruin him, right?
If sending Jones to the minors will send the proper message and force the outfielder to make the adjustments necessary to succeed, the organization needs to do it.
While there are no better options in Triple-A Norfolk right now, it’s not as though the Orioles are winning with Jones in center field anyway. Corey Patterson or Joey Gathright won’t improve the state of the 2010 Orioles, but this decision is more about Jones and preserving his future in Baltimore.
The Orioles and, more importantly, Jones need to figure it out.
It’s far too early to give up on such a supreme talent, but it’s clear there’s major cause for concern.
The young outfield has far too much ability for this to continue.