This is a weekly column written for those who play in deeper dynasty formats, where I will be focusing on a player who is owned in less than 20 percent of Fantrax leagues, as that is the most commonly used platform for dynasty leagues.
This season, perhaps more than any in recent memory, will be about pop-up prospects. It’s been well over a year since we last saw minor league baseball, and many guys have been quietly developing behind the scenes, undergoing pitch mix changes, swing changes, or just simply getting stronger – all things that will blow us all away when the season rolls around.
This weekly column will focus heavily on many of those pop up guys throughout the summer, because getting the jump on those players in deeper dynasty formats can be paramount in building a contending roster in future years.
However – while we wait for the minor leagues to get started, I want to focus today’s article on a player who fits into a group that is too often ignored in the fantasy community, a group that can often yield positive fantasy results for those in deeper leagues who are willing to buy in.
That group is the post-hype sleepers, particularly post-hype sleepers who are changing uniforms heading into a new season, and the player being discussed today fits both those bills in Baltimore second baseman Jahmai Jones.
I’ve always been a sucker for post-hype infielders, a la Ketel Marte, Jurickson Profar, and to a lesser extent Scott Kingery, and while Jones may not have had that level of pedigree, his price is nearly free in most dynasty formats and his age, clear path to playing time, bat-to-ball skills, overall athleticism, and plus speed could make him a solid fantasy asset in the not-too-distant future.
How did we get here?
Coming from a family of uber-athletes (his two brothers and his father all played professional football) Jones opted instead to focus on baseball, a decision that looked exceptionally wise when the Angels went overslot to sign him as a second round pick out of high school way back in 2015.
The team immediately moved him off second base and into the outfield, where he played exclusively until 2018 when the Halos finally decided to move him back to his more natural spot at second base. The transition was rough at first, but recent reports indicate his glovework has improved dramatically, particularly around the bag. While he (probably) won’t win any Gold Gloves, he is now considered more than capable of playing second base on the regular, and can step out to all three outfield spots as well.
Jones’ defensive versatility will help him get onto the field, but it’s his bat that fantasy players are interested in. The super-athlete tore through the lower levels of the minor leagues, reaching Single-A in his first full season and playing extremely well at High-A as a 19-year-old in 2017, where he slashed .302/.368/.488 with five home runs and nine steals in 41 games played.
That performance earned him a spot on Baseball America’s, MLB’s, and Baseball Prospectus’ top-100 prospect lists heading into the 2018 campaign. However, he was not able to keep up his hot hitting in 2018, likely due to the added work of switching back to second base cold turkey. He did not play a single game in the outfield in 2018, playing all 115 games (split between High-A and Double-A) at the keystone, while slashing a combined .239/.337/.380. He did contribute 10 home runs and 24 stolen bases, however, numbers that most deep league dynasty players would happily take from a player with multi-positional eligibility.
Many hoped for a rebound heading into 2019, Jones’ age-21 season, but instead he limped to the worst full season marks of his career – slashing just .234/.308/.324 with five home runs and nine stolen bases in 544 plate appearances, along with a 9.2% walk rate and 20% strikeout rate. While the box score stats represent a concerning trend, it is important to remember Jones was still just a college-aged kid playing the entire year at Double-A, and his TrackMan data showed a player who could impact the ball – he just ran into some bad luck, as evidenced by his unusually low .288 BABIP despite hitting 39% of his balls in play at 95 miles per hour or harder.
Jones may have had a bad year statistically in 2019, but a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, buoyed by yet another swing change, put him back on the radar as a prospect to watch for the Angels as he was added to the 40-man roster and carried at the team’s alternate training site in 2020.
He eventually found his way into three games for the Halos near the end of the shortened campaign, going 3-for-7 and scoring a pair of runs in his first, and now only, games in a Los Angeles uniform.
In February, just before spring training, the Angels unloaded Jones to the rebuilding Orioles in exchange for veteran starter Alex Cobb, giving the Halos another rotation piece and giving the Orioles a potential infielder to slot into the mix as soon as 2021.
New Swing, New Team
I wanted to finish Jones’ backstory, but I don’t want to gloss over that swing change either – as that is a catalyst for what could make him a very interesting deep league dynasty target.
Jones apparently messed with his swing quite a bit in the minor leagues, but rather than dig through each of those tweaks I thought we’d take a look at what his swing looked like when he was still in high school – with video below from the Perfect Game All-American Classic in 2014 – and his swing in 2020 during his small big league cameo with the Angels:
The immediate differences are quite obvious: Jones’ new swing is far quieter, with virtually no leg kick whatsoever and a bat head that stays perfectly still until he begins his swing. His old swing had a lot of excess movement, including a long period of time where his front foot was off the ground, which made it difficult for him to get around hard fastballs.
His new swing is quiet, really quiet, and it is clear velocity is not an issue for him after he barreled up 99 from Dustin May – even if it was in the middle of the plate.
Jones’s new swing should result in more barrels, which paired with his natural speed will allow him to leg out plenty of doubles – doubles that could become home runs in his new, hitter-friendly home at Camden Yards. In fact, seeing plenty of action in AL East ballparks is never a bad thing for a young player trying to find his power stroke.
So then big question becomes – what does he have to do to win an everyday role with the O’s?
Baltimore remains a team that is in full rebuilding mode, and they are looking to find some diamond-in-the-rough-type prospects to hopefully slot into regular roles for the short and long term. That makes Jones a prime candidate to get considerable run at second base for Baltimore as soon as this year – although he is not beginning the season with the team thanks to a rather poor performance in spring training, where he slashed .136/.240/.273 with one home run across 18 games played.
While the Orioles made the decision to give Jones more seasoning – for now at the team’s alternate site and likely at Triple-A when the season begins, his time could be coming pretty soon. The O’s are beginning the 2021 season with Rio Ruiz, a converted third baseman, playing second. While he’s already made a few nice plays, proving many naysayers wrong, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where the team wants to go a different direction – either because Ruiz isn’t hitting or because they want him to move back to third base in place of Maikel Franco.
Baltimore’s other potential second basemen in the system include Ramón Urías, Pat Valaika, Stevie Wilkerson and Richie Martin – a group that looks like a collection of utility infielders, with Martin being the only one who I believe could seriously compete for a full-time role at second base in the short term.
We already covered the swing change, which looks like it will allow Jones to continue to make consistent hard contact. However, the primary calling card for Jones’ fantasy relevance is not with his bat, but with his legs. The athleticism is what immediately stands out about Jones, allowing him to play the outfield and second base, but it also makes him a weapon on the basepaths. In an era where steals are at a premium, Jones’ ability to take an extra base 15-20 times a year instantly makes him fantasy relevant in deeper leagues, and potentially even shallower formats if he is at least competent in other categories.
Jones swiped 27 bases in 2017 and 24 in 2018, but he saw that production dip to just nine steals in 20 attempts in 2019 at Double-A. Stolen base numbers at the lower levels are often grossly misleading – thanks to inconsistent defensive performances from catchers at those levels – which makes it even harder to ignore the lack of production on the bases in 2019.
However, I’m willing to bank on the overall makeup and athleticism here, and I think Jones’ speed will show up on the basepaths with some consistency as he gets more accustomed to the big league cadence. Baltimore as a team doesn’t run all that much, but if Jones plays his way into an every day role I can see him getting 10-15 steals annually right away, and a high-contact swing with solid hard hit rates could potentially result in about 10-15 home runs per year as well.
If you’re seeing a player projected for 15/15 at best, and only if they win Baltimore’s starting second base job, and you’re thinking “why would I care about that?” this article might not be for you. Jones is a player who someday may have 10 or 12-team mixed league relevance, possibly even this year, but for now he is a player that is pretty far off the fantasy radar – even in dynasty leagues.
My hope was to highlight his overall athleticism, status as a post-hype sleeper, relatively easy path to a full-time job, and combination of power/speed which makes it not too hard to envision a player who is rosterable in deeper dynasty formats or AL-only leagues. If he ends up playing his way into mixed league relevance, even better! But for those of you who play in dynasty, particularly AL-only where middle infield help is at a premium, Jones is not a bad guy to pick up and wait on, as the recipe for success is pretty easy to identify.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)