Bottom of the second, one out, no score.
Adam Jones digs into the box, spits, twirls his bat into his set stance. All the while he looks out at the mound, preparing himself. He lays off the first pitch high and away, not even close. It is the last day of another forgettably terrible season, and I can't help but wonder how motivated he could possibly be in this at-bat. But he looks as locked in as he always does. The second pitch he rips down the line, foul. The third is a breaking ball, the classic down-and-away changeup that has always and will always fool him. The pitcher is lefty Jon Lester; Jones stepped into the box in trouble. Now he has two strikes and he's really in trouble. With two strikes he's just a .180 hitter.
Lester threads another changeup down and away, but Jones adjusts. He lunges, cutting his swing down, and puts wood on ball. The ball squibs out towards secondbase. The Boston shortstop, Marco Scutaro, fields it nimbly and throws to first, but far too late. Adam Jones has an infield single. The crowd claps but does not appreciate the moment for what it is. It will be the last time he stands on first base as a Baltimore Oriole.
Or at least I believe so. While the actual moves made by the Orioles this winter could at best be characterized as tepid roster tweaks, there have been a good number of interesting rumors surrounding the team. At the center of good ones sits Adam Jones. Which makes a ton of sense. Jones is one of the team's best players, but is in his arbitration years, is only two seasons away from free agency, and appears in many ways to have plateaued developmentally. His value to a bad team like the Orioles before he reaches free agency is significantly lower than his value to a competitive team in need of a good center fielder.
When it became clear towards the end of the season that the Orioles would have a new de facto General Manager for this offseason, I asked myself what I wanted to see from him or her. The answer I ended with was that I wanted to see a clear strong direction, either legitimately building or legitimately rebuilding. And, really, what I want is rebuilding. I have made the case more than a few times that the Orioles right now are not built primed to jump into competitive baseball.
There just isn't enough upside on the roster, and Adam Jones is a big part of that. He's a good player who I like, and I think he's got plenty of trade value, but the way the development of his production has stopped has me believing he isn't going to get much better. If the Orioles are going to take a huge step forward soon, "much better" is exactly what Jones (among others) needs to be. As evidence, I submit to you his career .319 on-base percentage, and his 2011 on-base percentage that matched it.
There are plenty of folks that disagree with me, of course. Plenty of Oriole journalists think Jones is a player you build around, a player who is going to get really, really good in the future. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, a guy I've never met but look up to as much as anyone, recently wrote that believes Adam Jones has a lot of upside left in him. Cameron isn't arguing that the Orioles should hold onto Jones, but his fundamental argument is the one trumpeted by those who do want Jones to stay an Oriole. You should read the article before I counter-point it, but here's the general gist:
To show this general skillset’s potential, I grabbed a list of all player seasons from the last 10 years where the hitter was 25 or younger, swung at 50% or more of the pitches they were thrown, and posted an ISO of at least .150 (to eliminate the middle infielders and catchers who are simply in the sport for their glovework). This group is essentially a collection of athletic players who got to the show based on their physical skills, but showed a significant lack of polish early in their career.
Guys who become regulars in their early-20s due to their athleticism often lag behind when getting judged by their on base percentage. However, their broad base of skills allow them to be useful players while still developing, and with more experience, their overall performances improve, sometimes dramatically.
Cameron takes 24 players he considers similar in skillset to Adam Jones and separates them into four groups. The "Future Star" group has nine players, the "Quality Regular" five, "Decent Role Player" four, and the "Bust" group has six players. I calculated out each of Cameron's groups' OBP through their age 25 season (since Jones' 2011 was his age 25 season), and then calculated their OBP since then as well (these numbers are courtesy baseball-reference):
- Class: OBP-through-25 / OBP-after-25
- Future Star: .342 /.369
- Quality Regular: .332 / .343
- Decent Role Player: .308 /.307
- Bust: .314 /.289
Here you see the immediate problem. Adam Jones and his .319 OBP has more in common with the lower end of the spectrum than the upper end. In fact, the one player with the closest OBP through 25 in the entire list is Bust Angel Berroa at .317 (since then: .268). The guys who became really good players after they turned 26 were already significantly better than Adam Jones. And then remember that if Jones is going to develop enough for the Orioles to reap the rewards, he has to do it in the next two years, before he hits free agency.
Of course, on-base percentage is not everything. Carl Crawford for example is in the "Star" group despite his relatively low career .333 OBP because he plays above average defense and hits for power. I can't state enough that I think Adam Jones is a good player, and he is only 26 years old, not yet in the traditional prime years of a baseball career. He should fetch a good price on the trade market. But what holds him back from being great is that he fails at the most fundamental part of the offense game: he makes too many outs with the bat.
Executive Vice President Dan Duquette has talked a lot about the Orioles need to increase their on-base percentage. He has acknowledged that the Orioles in a very general sense need to get a lot better. He also has acknowledged that he does not have very many trade chips. With rumors flying about trading Adam Jones to the Braves or the Nationals or the Mystery Team, it all adds up in my brain as saying Adam Jones is probably on his way out the door.
That makes me sad on many levels. Jones is a young, talented, and extremely likeable player. He is also, unfortunately, flawed in such an important way that his value as a trade chip far outstrips his value on the field for the Orioles. If he is indeed traded for a big package of prospects, it will be the first move of the Dan Duquette era that I can really be proud of.