The Arizona Diamondbacks have agreed to a one year contract with 33 year old free agent outfielder Adam Jones. The agreement comes with a base salary of $3 million and the possibility for him to earn up to $2 million in incentives. Arizona was left with a gaping hole in center field following the departure of A.J. Pollock in free agency. Ketel Marte and Socrates Brito were the two leading candidates to replace Pollock, the former being asked to move from the infield to the outfield.
Previously, Jones had spent the last eleven seasons with the Baltimore Orioles as their center fielder. During his career there, he had amassed four Gold Gloves (‘09, ‘12, ‘13, ‘14), a Silver Slugger (‘13), and had been named to five All Star teams. Jones has been worth 31.5 bWAR since 2008, his first full season in the league, and has earned MVP votes in three separate seasons. Jones was drafted 37th overall out of Samuel F. B. Morse High School in San Diego, California by the Seattle Mariners and later included in the lopsided, six player, 2008 trade to Baltimore for Erik Bedard. He departs Baltimore in the top 10 in a number of different statistical categories for the franchise.
Typically a player with that resume would command a substantial payday in free agency, but the market has been anything but typical recently. Because of MLB front offices’ increased reliance on analytics to determine a player’s value, and the perception of noncompetitive teams tanking, Jones went unsigned until roughly halfway through Spring Training.
In fairness to the Ivy League front offices, Adam Jones defensive ability has taken a significant turn for the worst over the past three seasons, and that has made a substantial impact on his value. Since 2016, Fangraphs has his DRS at -10, -12, and -25 respectively. That 2018 figure placed him as the third worst outfield defender in the league behind Charlie Blackmon and Bryce Harper (free agency is cruel), and his cumulative total since 2016 is the worst among all outfielders in the league. For perspective on how bad that is, Yasmany Tomas DRS in 2016 was -16 while Jarrod Dyson was at +9 in an injury shortened 2018.
By browsing Baseball Savant, we quickly learn that Jones’ sprint speed has dropped substantially from 28.0 feet per second in 2016 to 26.7 feet per second. Ketel Marte, who it appeared the Diamondbacks would deploy in center field to replace A.J. Pollock, had sprint speeds of 29.2 and 28.7 feet per second in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and that 2017 figure was in the top 5% of the league. Center fielders are among the fastest players in the league, and in 2018 Adam Jones was the slowest of them all. It’s an important skill for the position in a division with some of the most challenging outfields to play in the league.
However, all of this ignores one very important aspect that is not as easily measured. Jones has played his entire professional career in the outfield while Marte was being asked to move out of position. Where Marte currently has Jones beat in athletic ability, Jones’ instincts in the outfield likely allow him to make quicker decisions and take more efficient routes in the outfield. That’s not to say that Marte would be awful in center, but there would likely be occasional mistakes because he doesn’t have the experience that Jones does.
Today’s addition of Jones allows the Diamondbacks to ease Marte into center if that is what their true plan is. Because of Jones’ decline as a defender, under no circumstance should he be named the starter in center field. Lovullo would be wise in utilizing him as the 4th outfielder, a position that has been open due to Jarrod Dyson’s injuries. Jones is still a serviceable bat having only one season below league average by OPS+ this decade, two if using wRC+. Last season was the first that he had hit less than 25 home runs since 2010, he finished 2018 with 15, and his ISO dropped to a decade low .138.
Make no mistake about it, father time is catching up with Jones fast. However, that is of lesser concern to Arizona because the agreement with him is only a single season. Additionally, despite what Mike Hazen, Torey Lovullo and others have stated the road to the postseason is likely to be an uphill battle for the Diamondbacks this season. It’s a low risk move for the D’backs as a one year pact with a salary so low it will not handcuff future decisions.
What Adam Jones is losing in value on the baseball diamond he more than returns with his clubhouse presence. By all accounts, he is a standout teammate and contributor in the community. In 2015 alone, he was the recipient of the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award from the MLB players’ association, the Brooks Robinson Community Service Award from the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and the Governor’s Service Award from Maryland governor Larry Hogan. He has continuously donated portions of his salary to the Boys and Girls Clubs stemming from his childhood experience with the organization in San Diego. The D’backs could certainly appreciate his goodwill following the departure of the benevolent Paul Goldschmidt.
His signing is a departure of normal strategy for Mike Hazen. During his tenure in Arizona, Hazen has emphasized roster construction of superior defenders despite what that might mean for the team on offense. Jones does not quite fit that mold, but he should provide positive value to the organization given that he is utilized properly. Marte could still see a significant amount of playing time in center field under the tutelage of Jones, while the latter comes off the bench to provide relief on the off days of David Peralta and Steven Souza Jr. In particular, Jones has handled left handed pitchers much better than David Peralta in his career, so there is an opportunity for a platoon in that regard.
I’m certain that Jack and the other beat reporters will have further questions and answers from Torey Lovullo and Mike Hazen on how Adam Jones will be used this season, so for now let’s just enjoy one of my favorite highlights of the outfielder.
Sources: Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, ESPN.