Jones taking position change in stride

Angles' No. 4 prospect embracing move from outfield to second

Jahmai Jones has used his days as an infielder in high school to prepare him for a position switch. (Jerry Espinoza/MiLB.com)

By Nathan Brown / MiLB.com | May 9, 2018 10:00 AM ET

Jahmai Jones entered his first Major League Spring Training with a secret. 

He spent his first three professional seasons as an outfielder, and he found plenty of success along the way. At 20, the Angels' fourth-ranked prospect was the youngest player in the organization to receive a non-roster invitation to Major League camp this spring. Last year, Jones reached Class A Advanced Inland Empire for the last month and a half of the season, and he grabbed attention with a 25-game hitting streak. He was also named the Angels' Minor League Player of the Year for 2017. 

So, in early March when a representative from a baseball glove company came to the Tempe Diablo facility in Arizona and Jones took an infielder's tool, he effectively ignited Glovegate. Was Jones switching positions?

He initially shot down speculation, claiming the small glove was intended to help him fine-tune his precision and feel in the outfield, which wouldn't have been outside the box for a prospect well-known for his work ethic.

"I didn't think it was going to cause so much commotion, but I wanted to keep it under wraps and fully transition before the articles started," the 2015 second-rounder said. "But, honestly, I did like shagging with a smaller glove. It makes you really focus in everything."

But in the offseason, Los Angeles personnel approached him about transitioning back to the infield, where he played the majority of his youth and high school years and where his athleticism could be more of an asset.

As the youngest boy with five other siblings, Jones has never been one to back down from a challenge. He trusted that the organization that thought so highly of him during the 2015 Draft only had his best interests at heart.

"It's something I knew might happen at some point, whether it be 10 years or 10 days down the road, ever since I was 15," Jones said. "They proposed it to me originally, but I was all for it. I think it's a great opportunity to go farther in this game, so whatever I can do to get to the Majors.

"They needed someone who could transition quickly and play well, so I looked at it as a compliment, rather than a negative. I knew they had confidence in me and a plan for me, so rather than me being frustrated, like, 'I've been doing this for so long,' I'm not going to look at it like that. That's selfish. I want to open as many doors as possible, and whatever they think is going to get me there, I'm going to go in 100 percent and not look back."

Jones grew up in Roswell, Georgia, in a family that revolved around sports, particularly football. His father, Andre, played for the Detroit Lions in 1992 and helped lead the Notre Dame football team to the 1988 national championship. His older brothers, T.J. and Malachi, both followed Andre's legacy from college-level football to the professional ranks. No matter the playing surface, Jones always faced a tall task during family contests, and he wasn't one to cower away.

"My biggest thing was, I didn't want to live in anyone's shadow. On the blacktop playing basketball, people would say, 'He's too young,' or 'He can't play,' but I wanted to be the best out there," he said. "Whether guys were one year my senior or 10, that fearlessness was instilled in me at a young age. It puts a drive in you that there's nothing you can't do when you put your mind to it. I was never restricted to what I could or couldn't do."

In Spring Training this year, Jones wasn't alone in making a conversion. His Tempe roommate, No. 14 Angels prospect Taylor Ward, had been tasked with moving from catcher to third base. The good friends both tackled their moves with an open mind and laughed off the tough times. Having Ward there made it easier for Jones to see the light at the end of the tunnel, because the potential for his future Angels teammate was clear.

"He can hit and catch and throw, and this move eases his legs so they don't have to take his bat out of the lineup," Jones said. "It opens up doors for him. He could move to first or play on the corners. There are so many opportunities.

"But we took it in stride and did what we do best, two guys who work their butts off and continue to do what we need to."


As in 2017, Jahmai Jones is off to a slow start at the plate this year. (Jerry Espinoza/MiLB.com)

On the surface, at least, the transition has kick-started Ward more than Jones. The Mobile infielder entered Tuesday with a .380/.484/.550 slash line, ranking him near the top of all of Double-A. But Jones knew from experience that professional baseball is a game of failure, even for players who have played half their life. Switching to a new position would only amplify that, at least for a short time.

"Just going from the amateurs to the pros, you're going to have a rough patch, especially at a new place on the field," he said. "You have to get used to the speed of the game, and there were going to be errors early on, but I'm getting better every day from it. I try not to harp on them or take it too seriously.

"But I've got to get used to having my feet back on the dirt and being locked in at any moment. I'm involved in almost every play, on a cutoff or a ground ball to me or backing someone up. I always have to be in the right place at the right time. The biggest thing is doing all the small things and making the routine things routine."


"Games are meant to be fun. This is a little kids' game played by grown men, and I'm just thankful for the opportunity."
 
-- Jahmai Jones

At the plate, Jones has faced challenges this spring, but the numbers don't tell the full story. He entered Tuesday's matchup with Lancaster hitting .222/.333/.400, not unlike his slow start with Class A Burlington a year ago. But both Jones and 66ers manager Ryan Barba said he's been hitting it hard right at the opposition, a far cry from a year ago when Jones admitted to chasing pitches too often.

"We sit and look at numbers, and his average isn't where it's supposed to be, but he's hitting it hard," Barba explained. "He just needs to keep what he's doing, making contact and good decisions."

The new second baseman is committed to waiting patiently to catch a few breaks.

"You can go through weeks of hitting it well, and nothing drops," he said, "and then you can have two weeks making contact you don't think will be hits, and they just fall."

Jones finds it easy to take on these career challenges simply because he doesn't take anything too seriously. The way he sees it, he's getting paid to play baseball. Treating it like a joyless job would undermine that gift.

You can find him making goofy faces, cracking jokes, sticking his tongue out at photographers in the heat of the action.


Jones makes a point to break up the tense moments of pro baseball. (Jerry Espinoza/MiLB.com)

"I've talked with [MiLB.com photographer Jerry Espinoza] a bit, and one of the first times he took it, it was a joke. Now, he'll get a couple with me playing, and we'll make eye contact, and I'll stick my tongue out," Jones said of his trademark pose. "You can get caught up so much with stats and stuff, and at its core, it's a game we play for fun, and that's how I want to keep playing it.

"I play better loose and having fun, when it doesn't feel like a job. But I want to win, though. Don't get me wrong. I want to win just as much as the next guy. But I want to create a fun environment for the team and let the stats take care of themselves. Games are meant to be fun. This is a little kids' game played by grown men, and I'm just thankful for the opportunity."

When it comes to the intricacies between his two positions, Jones gets a bit more serious. To the casual baseball fan, fielding may be the same everywhere, but Jones said he's had to brush up on some tools that had gone rusty from playing four seasons in the outfield. His footwork can't be sloppy. A miscue on a play made in fractions of a second could cost a win. He has to be hyper-alert every moment, ready to turn a double play or dive for a grounder and flip to first.

"It's all about angles. The ball comes off the bat differently, and the first step is new," Barba said. "Understanding certain plays and being able to keep speed underneath the ball and understanding where to be on certain plays, it's something you'd normally take for granted."

That's where the new glove comes in handy. He's switched from an outfielder's glove, size 12 ¾, to an 11 ½. Now, the ball won't stick in the webbing, allowing him to make a fluid throwing motion, but he must be that much more precise when snagging liners in the middle infield.

Still, Jones is confident he could play either position in the Major Leagues. He sees this move as one to speed up the process and allow him to impact the Angels sooner. But his experience as an infielder and as an outfielder not only means he would enter the big leagues a versatile, budding star, but that he has a better handle on what's going through the minds of his teammates.

"I now know how the outfielders think and what they want to do," he said. "It gives me an aspect of understanding of what to do on a hit, and I know where they want to throw the ball and where it should go."

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In Jones, Barba sees a fighter, someone who's unafraid to take on his lofty ranking within the Angels organization and a major challenge in the field in stride. Surviving a 140-game season is tough for anyone, but the Inland Empire manager is certain that his second baseman is prepared for the added degree of difficulty.

Jones added that he's not trying to rush himself to the Majors too hastily, either. Already as the youngest player on the 66ers roster, he knows perfection in a game of mistakes takes time. All he hopes to accomplish in 2018 is tackle the unique challenges that each day brings.

"I just want to continue to capitalize on things I did well last season and stay level-headed," he said. "As long as I improve, either a little or a lot, that's what I want."

Nathan Brown is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @NathanBrownNYC. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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