Visalia, California —— Jahmai Jones was still two weeks shy of his 20th birthday when he got his first taste of High-A ball in the California League a year ago. The crown jewel of a relatively weaker Los Angeles Angels farm system at the time, high expectations followed Jones — then an outfielder — as he jumped from Low-A Burlington to the Inland Empire 66ers as a teenager three and four years younger than the majority of his Cal League competition.
If the age difference and jump in talent fazed him early on, Jahmai Jones never showed it. The Angels prospect more than held his own for the 66ers with a .302/.368/.488/.857 slash line down the stretch, filling the stat sheet with 11 doubles, five home runs, 13 walks, and nine stolen bases in 41 games through the end of 2017. Impressive without question, it was seemingly enough to put the Georgia native on the fast track to Anaheim as 2017 wrapped.
But Jones returned to Inland Empire to begin 2018, too — still as one of the younger prospects in the league — and suffered a relatively slow first half the last couple months. To date, he’s produced just a .235/.338/.383/.721 slash line over 75 games entering play on Saturday night, a significant drop from his first try at Inland Empire. Despite the drop in production thus far this summer, though, the Angels farmhand can see the bigger picture beyond the stats.
“I feel like I’m making better decisions at the plate this year,” he told me before a recent 66ers road game in Visalia. “Regardless of how you look at it, you always want your ‘baseball card’ stats to be good. Who doesn’t want to hit .300? But I trust that as long as I keep making good decisions at the plate, I know it will turn around. That’s something I look at later, after the game, I’ll ask myself ‘did I make good decisions at the plate today? Did I make hard contact?’ If both those are ‘yes,’ then it’s likely I’ll have gotten a hit or two, and if not, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
That Jahmai Jones is more focused on the process than the result is, without question, a sign of maturity in the young prospect. It’s a good sign for his future with the Angels, too, as the organization continues to give him the leash to fail, learn, and make adjustments in a low-pressure setting out in San Bernardino. There’s a wild card thrown in this year too, though — a wrinkle Jones didn’t have to deal with last season: a position change.
Previously an outfielder with plus speed to track the ball down in center field, the Angels asked Jahmai Jones to move to second base before this season began. It’s a position he hadn’t played since early in his high school career, but Jones was game to try it, and he’s found himself quickly re-acquiring the position’s fundamentals in the hope to one day hold down an everyday role there.
“I was really excited when this opportunity presented itself,” Jones said. “Billy [Eppler, the Angels’ general manager] brought it up to me, and I was immediately all for it. It might open up another door for me to get to the big leagues and elongate my career, and get as much out of it as I can. I love playing the infield. Really, I just love getting more opportunities to play this game.”
Jones passes the eye test at second base thus far, showing encouraging range and some feel for the quick exchanges required of the position despite such little high-level experience there. His arm strength and size are both natural fits for the position; his first-step quickness and reaction times could help him thrive there one day. Without question there’s still ample room to develop into a legitimate big league-quality second baseman, but the Georgia native is receiving high marks early as he learns the position quickly, all things considered.
“Right now, it’s really been about getting my feet wet more than anything else,” he acknowledged about the development process at second base. “You work hard at it, and over time you start to become accustomed to it, you start to get into a groove. For me, right now, this is an opportunity to play second base in the big leagues. This isn’t just something to do, or a position to add. I want to be a good big league second baseman. I want to get everything I can out of second base knowing that this could be my role one day, and maybe this is my one shot at getting there, so I better lock in.”
Mature beyond his age, Jones clearly knows how to say all the right things. And yet there’s an authenticity to his attitude this year, brought on in no small part by those around him. Long have the Angels been criticized for having a weak farm system, but methodically over the last few seasons they’ve added pieces — Jones, for one, as well as Brandon Marsh, Jo Adell, even Shohei Ohtani — and suddenly, things are relatively optimistic down on the farm, light years beyond the struggles of seasons past.
Jones can feel that — and he likes it.
“Look through this Inland Empire lineup right now, there are some dudes here who can really play baseball,” Jones said, smiling. “And at the end of the day, everybody wants to win. When you get to the big leagues, you throw your ego out the window, and all you want to do is hit that win column. Get as many as you can. Fill it up. I look around here now, and I see a great group of guys with great chemistry, and all we want to do is go play and have fun, and win.”
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