In a farm system considered to be one of the more barren in recent memory, the Angels' Jahmai Jones is standing out as a legitimate, high-ceiling prospect in his second season as a pro. Now, he wants to act like it.
"It's definitely an honor to be a top prospect," said the 18-year-old center fielder. "It shows the Angels place a high value on what you're doing, and now it's on you to show why people think that. It's important to remember that not every game has to be spectacular, though. You have to keep doing the little things that you can every day to get better. And don't give anyone a reason to think otherwise.
"You've got eyes on you a lot, and with that comes a little bit of responsibility and the need for leadership. I definitely have to show I'm more mature than my age, and as part of that, I'm going to be a leader on the team. People can follow me or not, if they want. But being a top prospect is an honor, and I take that responsibility seriously."
This past week has been a big one for the Angels' No. 2 prospect. On Wednesday, he was named a starting outfielder for the Pioneer League All-Stars; later that night, his Rookie-level Orem Owlz clinched a first-half South Division title.
Come next Tuesday's Pioneer/Northwest League showcase, Jones will be the most prominent prospect on the Pioneer squad, a distinction he's clearly earned. The 2015 second-rounder has a .322/.389/.463 line with two homers, two triples, 11 doubles and 11 steals through 35 games for the Owlz. Batting primarily out of the leadoff spot for one of the circuit's best offenses, Jones leads the league with 37 runs scored. Add in plus speed and above-average play in center field, and it's not hard to see why he's ranked behind only 2016 first-rounder Matt Thaiss in the Los Angeles system and why he might have the highest ceiling among any Angels prospect.
"He's been able to provide a lot of things, a lot of options," Orem manager Dave Stapleton told MiLB.com about Jones after the clinch. "He can bunt, he runs well, he hits for some power.… He's been a big plus of this first half. He's done a tremendous job in the outfield of directing and making sure people are moving and shifting. He's extremely mature for his age."
As quickly as he's ascended to the top of the prospect ranks, Jones always seemed primed to make a smooth transition to professional sports. His father, Andre, was a defensive end for Notre Dame when it last won a national championship in 1988 and went on to play in the NFL briefly with the Lions. (He passed away in 2011.) His brother, TJ, also played for the Irish as a wide receiver and is entering his second season with Detroit. His other brother, Malachi, is trying to forge a career in the NFL after playing wide receiver at Appalchian State.
Being from a knowledgable sports family came in handy last year when Jones was set to turn a standout high school career at Wesleyan High School in Roswell, Georgia, into a potentially high Draft pick at the age of 17, making him young for the class thanks to his Aug. 4 birthday. Jones leaned on brother TJ, who went through the NFL draft process a year earlier as a sixth-round pick, for advice as June approached.
"I knew what to do on the day," Jones said, "and that was to just keep my mind off things. Don't think about it too much because it'll drive you crazy. You don't fully understand what it'll be like until it happens."
The Angels ended up nabbing the raw center fielder in the second round with the 70th overall pick and signed him away from a committment to the University of North Carolina with a $1.1 million signing bonus, more than the $880,000 value assigned to the slot.
"I would've loved to go to UNC," Jones said. "I liked everyone there, and I was thankful for what everyone there had done for me. But at the end of the day, I wanted to play pro ball. I got an offer I couldn't turn down, and even though I was 17, I utimately thought I was ready to make the jump. With everything that's happened, I made the right choice in my opinion."
In his first taste of the pros at the complex-level Arizona League, Jones hit .244/.330/.344 with 10 extra-base hits and 16 steals in 40 games. Then came his first offseason, his first Spring Training and his first extended spring training -- all to prepare for longer look in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. During that time, Jones received glowing reports for his makeup and desire to improve, and the proof is in the pudding. He's taken a jump in all three slash-line categories this summer while seeing his strikeout rate drop from 18 percent to 13.1 percent and his power increase from a .100 ISO over 183 plate appearances in the AZL to .141 through 168 plate appearances this season, even if that tool is mostly showing up in doubles for now. The changes go beyond the stats, too.
"I've changed most as a player physically, I think," he said. "I've gotten stronger. I've focused on certain parts of my body that need to be better than others. But I've also changed the way I think about things, the way I work my pregame prep, even my in-game prep.... I'm thinking about all the possible outcomes at all times now, like making sure what base I needed to throw to if, say, the ball's in the gap or if it's hit to another player, what base I need to be backing up. I'm thinking about everything before it happens."
While most high-profile Draft picks are sent to full-season affiliates in their first post-Draft seasons, the Angels have chosen to take the slow road in hope that their prized outfielder can continue to build on his success at the lowest levels before having him endure a 140-game season. No matter where they send him, Jones understands his role at every stop.
"The main thing they told me is go out and play and don't get caught up in where you are," he said. "You could be in the AZL one day, the next day in Orem and high-A before you know. If you get caught up thinking, 'What do I need to do to get called up?' that's when you run into problems.
"I'm a young guy. I know they don't want to rush me. So I'm trying to enjoy the game and focus everything I can to win a championship where I am, whether that's the Pioneer League or [Class A] Burlington. Every day I've come with that mindset."