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January 19, 2006

Prospectus Today

Going Deeper on Jacque Jones

by Joe Sheehan

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I get letters…

"'To me, that makes him a more attractive buy than someone like, say, Jacque Jones, who might play in 150 games and drag you down towards 77 wins.'"

"Do yourself a favor and look at something other than Jones' OBP. You're starting to make yourself look silly on this issue. Jones, last year, was worth 4.6 WARP1. Over his 5 full seasons, he's averaging something like 4 WARP. He's got a lifetime .257 EQA, so he's been essentially a league average hitter for his career. Since when did league average hitters drag a team's offense down? Has he done something to you personally to deserve this constant punishment? I just don't understand why you've decided to make him your whipping boy. He's got a great glove and an average bat, and that is a pretty valuable combo (even more valuable if you platoon him left/right and sub him in on defense when lefties start).

--M.S."

This isn't the first e-mail M.S.--a long-time reader who knows his stuff--has sent on this issue, so I figured I'd take a closer look at Jones.

The facts in the e-mail are all correct. Jones posted 4.6 Wins Above Replacement last season, and he does have a career EqA of .257. I'm not sure what "five full seasons" means, since Jones has been a regular for the past six years, but if we're just talking about his 500-AB years, or his best five seasons, then he's averaged 3.78 WARP in those, or close enough that M.S.'s point stands.

The questions raised by this e-mail are whether Jones' past performance is indicative of what he'll do as a Cub, and whether that performance is worth five million bucks a season for three years.

The latter seems obvious. Just about any team can find a player to put up four WARP in a season's worth of playing time just by trolling the waiver wire and doing a halfway decent job with NRIs. The Cardinals pulled John Rodriguez out of thin air last season to play some left field and got 1.7 WARP from 110 outs. That would be nearly a six-WARP season at Jones' 403 outs. Bobby Kielty, who used to be a Twins' prospect, had a 2.5 WARP for the A's while using 284 outs. The year before, the injury-riddled Twins allowed minor-league veteran Lew Ford to win a job. He posted 5.0 WARP in a full season of play.

Jones being a four-win player given 400 outs to waste is a sign that he's a fourth outfielder who plays too much, not that he's a credible regular.

Much of Jones' value is defensive. He is, by Clay Davenport's system, a good defensive outfielder, showing solid range that helps make up for a weak arm. He's been worth at least 19 runs above replacement defensively in three of the past four seasons. That's real value, but I question how much of it will come with Jones to Wrigley Field. While his skill level may remain unchanged, Wrigley Field has one of the smaller outfield areas in the game, and the high grass and short power alleys--versus the Metrodome's various turfs and average-sized gaps--lessens the role of an outfielder's skill in cutting balls off.

Put more simply, the Cubs don't need great defense on the outfield corners as much as they need guys who can hit. Jones' defensive skills are less valuable to the Cubs than they were to the Twins, and that's without considering the much higher strikeout rate--and consequently, fewer balls in play--that the Cubs' pitchers have.

That's the soft point, and there's room for argument there. What cannot be argued is that M.S.'s assessment of Jones is largely based on Jones having the same defensive value for the Cubs as he does for the Twins. There's little reason to think he will.

This evaluation of Jones is also giving him full credit for his peak seasons, performances he hasn't approached outside of that peak. At 27 and 28, Jones hit over .300, and at 27, he popped 66 extra-base hits and posted a .211 isolated power. He hasn't come close to doing those things in any other year, and his most recent seasons--essentially identical lines of about .250/.315/.430--are terrible for a corner outfielder. Unless there's some reason to believe he's going to return to his peak, which looks a bit like a fluke, at 31, those two seasons have very little relevance to his Cub future.

M.S. argues that you could platoon Jones, thereby getting his offensive performance against right-handers, which is better than his overall numbers. This is true, but then you'd be losing the value of his durability and his glove against left-handers, and both of those things are key elements of his value. This kind of decision with a player like Jones is zero-sum; there's no way you can massage his playing time that is going to make him a more valuable property. Moreover, Dusty Baker loves defense and he loves veterans. He's not going to be platooning Jones.

Finally, Jones doesn't fit the Cubs' needs. They have, and have had for years, enough low-OBP, decent-SLG guys to fill out two rosters. What they needed was a high-OBP guy who could bat in the top two lineup slots and allow Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez to bat with runners on base. Jones isn't that player; he's a #7 hitter, someone who doesn't take pitches, hits into double plays and lacks substantial power. He was the wrong player for the Cubs, and that's the heart of my ongoing criticism of the signing. Jones is an inadequate corner outfielder for any team, but a particularly bad choice for the Cubs.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Bobby Jones

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