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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Jahmai Jones

It was a nightmarish debut in Baltimore for the young infielder. He faces immediate pressure to rebound and force his way into the club’s future.

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MLB: AUG 25 Angels at Orioles Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each of the 38 players currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.

Second base was a problem for the Orioles throughout 2021. As a group, the team’s second base unit accumulated -0.7 fWAR, the worst mark in the league among that position. But there seemed to be an obvious solution already in-house, former Angels farmhand Jahmai Jones.

Jones became an Oriole on February 2, 2021, when the O’s landed him in exchange for starting pitcher Alex Cobb. The move was universally praised from the Orioles’ perspective. After all, Jones had been a fringy top 100 prospect in the Angels system at one point and was major league ready, appearing in three big league games in 2020, while Cobb had struggled with injury and inconsistency for his entire run in Baltimore.

There is no question that the Orioles farm system has improved under Mike Elias’s watch, but at the time of the Jones trade, they were still severely lacking in upper minors infielders. Jones filled that need, at least it seemed. He began his professional career as an outfielder and even still played out on the grass on occasion. The Angels first tried him at second base in 2018 and continued with the project through the time of the trade.

The Orioles’ lack of internal infield options meant that Jones seemed like an immediate candidate for the team’s second base job in 2021. But it wasn’t going to happen overnight.

While the O’s cycled through Rio Ruiz, Stevie Wilkerson, Pat Valaika, and others in Baltimore, Jones was finding his footing in Triple-A Norfolk. He dealt with injuries, which limited him to just six games through the end of May. Upon his return, he looked good, recording a hit in 12 straight games (three in Aberdeen, nine in Norfolk). But he then slumped to a solid but unspectacular .749 OPS in July while reports from the warehouse were that Jones still needed to work on his defense prior to a big league promotion.

Jones eventually earned the call to Baltimore on August 23, 2021. Between that day and the end of the season, the 24-year-old appeared in 26 nightmarish games for the Orioles. He went 10-for-67 at the plate with three doubles, four walks, and 26 strikeouts. Regardless of defensive ability, a .194 slugging percentage and 36.1% strikeout rate aren’t going to get it done.

It’s tough to draw any real conclusions from a small sample size like that. Simply put, Jones looked overmatched. Velocity up in the zone gave him trouble, and he bit on breaking balls tumbling out of the zone too often. He’s not the first rookie to have these troubles, and he won’t be the last.

If you do want to be critical though, underwhelming performances at the plate are now becoming a common theme for Jones. Keith Law said prior to the 2021 season that Jones “has taken well to second base but hasn’t hit anywhere near his capabilities.” FanGraphs explained in their Orioles prospect rankings that “Jones has been lauded for his tools since he was selected....[but] his game still hasn’t really come together.”

A bad big league cameo does not spell disaster for your career, neither do some less than stellar minor league numbers. But for Jones it could be a problem of timing.

The Orioles have seen their picture of the future infield become much clearer over the last 12 months. Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg stormed through the farm in 2021 and now look like candidates to be starters in the big leaguers by 2023. Healthy seasons from Terrin Vavra and Joseph Ortiz could put them in the same conversation. And that’s before we even include someone like Connor Norby or César Prieto, two newbies to the organization but with the chance to rise fast.

Meanwhile in Baltimore, the current infield is a mystery, but Jones would appear lower in the pecking order than the likes of Rougned Odor, Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo, at least. And there is the chance that that sign another name or two between now and the eventual start to spring training to muddy things further.

End of season prediction: Once again, Jones will be regarded from the outside as a candidate to see significant innings at second base. But ultimately he seems poised to best fit as a super utility player that can also serve as a fourth outfielder and pinch runner. His bat has to be better than what we saw in 2021. It’s almost impossible to be worse.

That sort of player, especially one with minor league options, is set for a season that bounces him between Baltimore and Norfolk, but his flexibility should see him conclude the season in the big leagues as a useful tool on Brandon Hyde’s bench.

Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, D.L. Hall

Tomorrow: Bruce Zimmermann