COMMENTARY | Earlier this week, the Pittsburgh Pirates officially non-tendered Garrett Jones, something that was a foregone conclusion given the raise he would have received over his $4.5 million salary and his disappointing 2013 season.
For the Pirates, it marks an end of an era, the first baseman/right fielder being the longest-tenured member of the Pirates other than Andrew McCutchen. It also marks the end of one of the few success stories the Pirates had in the years between 1992 and 2012.
When the Pirates signed Garrett Jones in the winter of 2008, it was on a minor league contract and his power potential looked at as nothing more than depth, not a middle-of-the-order lottery ticket on the cheap. After making his major league debut with the Twins in 2007, getting 84 plate appearances, Jones never saw major league action in 2008, hitting 23 home runs for the AAA squad. Invited to spring training with the Pirates in 2009, he was one of the last cuts before once again being shuttled down to the minor leagues. It wasn't much of a story, aging minor leaguers, while offering a nice puff piece for beat writers in March, rarely leave much of an impact on the big league squad.
After the Pirates traded Eric Hinske midseason, Jones was called up to fill his roster spot, making his Pirates debut on July 1. Amid a terrible Pirates season, one that saw the team finish 62-99, there were few bright spots, the 28-year-old Jones, a rookie with power potential, little more than another body to get the team through the season.
After going 0-for-4 in his first game, Jones warmed up, getting three hits and a home run against the Mets in a Pirates loss the next day. Two days later, he hit another. At the end of his first month with the Pirates, Jones was hitting .310/.361/.700 with 10 home runs, winning the NL Rookie of the Month Award. For a fan base that didn't have much reason to watch, Garrett Jones was giving them one.
By the end of the year, Jones hit 21 home runs in only 358 plate appearances, the fifth-highest total of home runs after his call-up date, behind only Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Derrek Lee, and Mark Reynolds. It was a magical season for a 28-year-old who, very easily, could have been lost in the shuffle of the minor leagues for the rest of his career.
Unfortunately, that would mark the high point of Jones' career, contact issues and a drop in power production always meaning the Pirates were on the lookout for an upgrade at either right field or first base. After hitting two home runs on opening day in 2010, Jones would still lead the team in home runs (21) and RBIs (86), but watched his average drop to .247 and his on base percentage fall to .306.
The next year, Jones hit only 16 home runs, losing playing time to an ineffective Matt Diaz at the start of the year.
In 2012, as the Pirates made a postseason run and once again suffered a late-season collapse, Jones hit a career-high 27 home runs but was shuffled between first base and right field as the Pirates hoped to find the right combination of platoon partners. Jones was not the solution, just the most productive piece of a puzzle that wasn't completed.
Finally, in 2013, as the team around him succeeded, Jones struggled mightily, his batting average and on-base percentage dropping to career lows (.233/.289/.419), hitting only 15 home runs as Gaby Sanchez protected Jones against lefties and Justin Morneau eventually taking his job. In the playoffs, Jones received only two at-bats against the St. Louis Cardinals, getting zero hits and striking out once. When the Pirates season ended, so did Jones' time with the club.
With the chance that Jones could be the third-most expensive player on the roster next season, it didn't make sense to keep him. Not when Jose Tabata, Gaby Sanchez, Andrew Lambo, and Jaff Decker are all competing for the position that Jones would occupy. But while Jones was never an All-Star, his is a success story, the 28-year-old rookie who made good.
Known as GI Jones by Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown, Jones was the first Pirate to hit a home run into the Allegheny River on the fly when he did it on June 2 of this year. Jones won two games with walkoff home runs, tying them 17 teams. He's 22nd all-time on the Pirates' team leaderboard in home runs, just behind Andrew McCutchen, a fitting 100 to his name.
On another team, Jones maybe never gets the chance to play in 2009, perhaps getting a few more cups of coffee before calling it a career. But while Jones was never the best player on the Pirates, he offered middle-of-the-order power when no one else could. Few minor league free agents pushing 30 get a chance to make an impact, but Jones took advantage of it, getting more than 2,000 at-bats with a team that was always in a transition.
Jones may never go down in history as one of the all-time greats, but for a number of impressionable young Pirates fans, there will be a surprising number who look back and list Garrett Jones chief among their childhood heroes. That's an outcome no one could have predicted at the start of the 2009 season.
- Sports & Recreation
- Garrett Jones
- Pittsburgh Pirates