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Orioles prospect season in review: Jahmai Jones

Jones was an early favorite of O’s fans for his hot hitting in Triple-A, but looked totally lost in his brief major league audition late in the year.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

When you were a kid, was there ever a new toy that you just couldn’t wait to get your hands on? Like, you saw a commercial for the Super Turbo-Charged Glow-in-the-Dark Remote-Controlled Racecar and you started imagining zooming it all around your house with the lights off. And every day, for months, you would ask your parents, “Can I have a Super Turbo-Charged Glow-in-the-Dark Remote-Controlled Racecar? Can I have a Super Turbo-Charged Glow-in-the-Dark Remote-Controlled Racecar?” And they kept saying, “Not right now. Maybe later.” And then you just kept waiting and waiting, and in your head the Super Turbo-Charged Glow-in-the-Dark Remote-Controlled Racecar just kept getting more and more awesome, and you didn’t understand why you had to keep waiting when you wanted it now now now.

And then the big day arrived. You finally got your Super Turbo-Charged Glow-in-the-Dark Remote-Controlled Racecar! You excitedly started playing, and turns out it was kind of lame. The darn thing was slow. It couldn’t drive straight. And it didn’t even glow in the dark. All you could think was, “Is this it?”

Welcome to the story of Jahmai Jones, a cautionary tale about overhyping a prospect who’s not quite ready for those expectations.

Jones, a 24-year-old Georgia native, was one of the foremost prospects on Orioles fans’ minds for months on end in 2021. It’s not because he’s a future superstar or anything — he ranks as the Birds’ #18 prospect on MLB Pipeline, which describes him as a possible everyday second baseman with “the floor of being a very useful role player off the bench.” What set Jones apart from most of the players in the Orioles’ top 30 is that he was, seemingly, a major-league ready prospect in 2021, having already gotten a cup of coffee in the bigs with the Angels before the O’s acquired him in February’s Alex Cobb trade.

Jones also happens to play a position — second base — at which the Orioles had a gaping hole for the majority of the season. When the Orioles released presumed second baseman Yolmer Sanchez just before Opening Day, it appeared they were making room for Jones to get an everyday opportunity in the majors. Even if it didn’t happen immediately — Jones’ 3-for-22 performance in spring training ticketed him for Triple-A Norfolk to start the year — it seemed like only a short matter of time before Jones would find himself in the O’s lineup.

And then time passed. And more time passed. And Jones remained stuck in the minors for weeks. Then months.

Jones suffered an early setback when he suffered a strained left oblique just six games into his season, putting him on the shelf for nearly a month. But he came back healthy, strong, and swinging a red-hot bat. Jones reached base safely in his first 25 games upon returning to the Tides, posting a whopping .446 OBP in that span, with 28 hits and 21 walks. He batted .311 and OPS’d .913. He was far and away the best hitter in Norfolk’s lineup.

With Jones tearing up Triple-A pitching for a full month while the Orioles cycled through the least productive group of second basemen in all of MLB, the drumbeat for Jahmai’s promotion to the bigs grew ever louder on the Twitterverse and on forums like this (including by yours truly). The O’s, though, were unmoved. They kept Jones parked in Norfolk until well after the All-Star break, insisting that he needed to improve his defense at second base.

It might seem strange that Jones would need more seasoning at a position he’s played more than any other, but in fairness, he didn’t see a single inning at second base until 2018, his fourth professional season. The Angels drafted him as an outfielder out of Wesleyan School in Georgia in the second round of the 2015 draft, playing him mainly in center field to begin his pro career. The Angels, though, kind of already have that position locked down for the foreseeable future, so Jones shifted to second base when he reached High-A, while still making spot starts in left and center. His offensive potential, meanwhile, was intriguing. MLB Pipeline praised his work ethic and his “ability to have good at-bats, with solid discipline and consistent hard contact.”

Jones’ early-season performance at Norfolk gave hope that he might be starting to find the best version of his bat. His numbers, though, began to slide around midseason. He went into a 5-for-44 slump for two weeks, eventually settling into a .238/.329/.417 line by Aug. 21.

Finally, the day arrived: Jones received the call-up to Baltimore on Aug. 23, just when O’s fans were starting to wonder if it would ever happen. The excitement was a bit more muted than it’d been in May and June, but still, Birdland was anxious to see what Jones could do in his MLB audition. Orioles second basemen had been so abysmal up to that point that Jones almost had to be an improvement, right?

Well, folks, I regret to report that he was not. Jones’ 26 big league games were a small sample size, yes, but what an uninspiring 26 games they were. Jones rarely had competitive at-bats, collecting just 10 hits while striking out 26 times in 72 plate appearances. He batted .149, posted a .402 OPS, and an OPS+ of 11. Eleven. Simply put, he looked completely overmatched.

And in the field? Well, the Orioles weren’t kidding about Jones’ defense needing work. In his limited innings at second base, Jones graded as subpar by both FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved (-1) and Statcast’s Outs Above Average (-5). Manager Brandon Hyde didn’t seem to have faith in Jahmai’s glove, either, as the second baseman would often be replaced by Pat Valaika — himself a below-average fielder — late in games.

The O’s even optioned Jones back to Norfolk on Sept. 16 to clear more playing time for Valaika, which is the ultimate insult for a prospect. Jones returned to the Orioles six days later, but managed just one hit in his final 13 at-bats.

Well. That was rough. After months of clamoring for Jones to get a chance, O’s fans couldn’t have liked what they saw once he got one. By no means, though, does it mean his career is destined for ruin. Some prospects bust, but some simply need time to figure things out. Jones has the talent and the athletic pedigree — his father and two brothers were pro football players — to develop into a useful player, whether it’s as a starter or a bench guy. And he’s certainly got the opportunity. The Orioles still have a gaping hole at second base, so Jones will be in the mix of candidates to earn another extended audition next spring.

Who knows? Maybe that Super Turbo-Charged Glow-in-the-Dark Remote-Controlled Racecar could turn out to be kind of fun after all, even if it doesn’t live up to the high expectations.

Previous 2021 Orioles prospect reviews: Ryan McKenna, Alexander Wells, Brnovich/Peek/Pinto, Diaz/Bannon, Tyler Nevin, Vavra/Ortiz/Servideo, Zac Lowther, DL Hall/Rom, Hernandez/Basallo

Tomorrow: Hudson Haskin