The first time I saw Adam Jones play was in August 2007 at Camden Yards, but he was with the Seattle Mariners then and had recently been called up from the minor leagues for his second stint in the majors. I was there with my wife’s family and told them to watch out for this kid -- he’s a highly rated prospect who has a great arm. I looked pretty smart when Jones, playing left field, caught a line drive in the first inning and doubled Brian Roberts off first base. He’d go 3-for-4 at the plate and score four runs in a 13-5 Mariners' victory.
Seattle would win 88 games that year, and with a young Felix Hernandez on the rise and Jones’ arrival, you could envision a bright future for the Mariners … and then, that offseason, Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi traded Jones, Chris Tillman, George Sherrill and two other minor leaguers to the Orioles for Erik Bedard.
My friend Ted the Mariners fan sent me an email Monday night: “Watching Adam Jones is very depressing. Just robbed a home run, then gunned a runner trying to tag up for a double play.”
Ted’s sadness, however, is balanced by the joy of Orioles fans, who have enjoyed Jones’ hustle, enthusiasm, consistency and greatness over the past seven years.
I’ll admit: Despite my enthusiasm back on that cloudy August night years ago, I was slow to come around in appreciating Jones. I focused too much on his major weakness -- he rarely walks, which leads to league average-ish (or slightly below) on-base percentages -- and groused the defensive metrics didn’t agree with the Gold Gloves he was winning.
The sad thing about focusing too deeply or too much on the numbers is you can fail to fully appreciate a player. Jones is the kind of player any team would want, the kind of player baseball should do a better job of promoting: He’s charismatic, he plays with flair, he plays hard, he’s durable, and he’s good. He’s the kind of player every fan should love -- even Mariners fans.
The numbers say he isn’t quite a superstar; maybe not. He does make a lot of outs, and many Orioles fans I’ve conversed with in recent years have agreed with the defensive metrics that suggest Jones might be overrated in center field. OK, so maybe he’s not perfect. But there he was Monday, with the Orioles leading 9-1 in the sixth inning, tracing a fly ball to that short fence in Camden Yards, robbing Evan Longoria of a home run and throwing out Matt Joyce as he tried to tag from first base; he still has that arm I saw seven years ago.
Maybe the most underrated aspects of Jones’ game are his durability and consistency. After missing zero games in 2012 and just two last year, he’s played every game this season. When he got off to a slow start -- just one home run in his first 30 games -- it looked like he’d have a bad year, at least in the power department. Instead, here he is: Hitting in the .280s like he has the past four years and up to 24 home runs. In this day of carrying just 12 or 13 position players on a roster, having a guy who plays every day is more important than ever.
Jones isn’t unappreciated; he has started the past two All-Star Games, for example. But I’m here to finally say I’m on board.
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At the age of 23 in 2007, Nick Markakis hit .300 with 23 home runs, 43 doubles and 112 RBIs. The next year, he hit .306/.406/.491 with 20 home runs, 48 doubles and 99 walks and led American League position players in WAR (he was rewarded with not even one 10th-place vote in the MVP voting). He was kind of the opposite of Jones: A player statheads loved with all those walks, that doubles power, the cannon arm and the good defense in right field.
He was just 24, and everyone wondered how good he’d be if he ramped up that home run output just a bit.
Then a funny thing happened. In 2009, tight as Markakis was entering what should have been his peak years, the game started changing: Offense declined across the league and pitchers began dominating, and as Markakis failed to replicate those numbers from his early seasons, he began to be viewed as a disappointment. Where was the power? Where were the 100-RBI seasons? He was no longer underrated but forgotten.
But here’s the thing: He has remained a good player, an above-average offensive performer other than in 2013. He still has a strong arm (he leads the AL in assists from right field), and while he no longer fits the conventional mold of a 25- or 30-homer right fielder, he has provided the Orioles good production from the leadoff spot with a .348 OBP and his 12th home run Monday.
A lot of teams might have given up on Markakis at some point and traded him for some pimply-faced kid in A-ball who throws 96, after viewing him through the lens of what they thought he’d be, as opposed to what he is.
Buck Showalter had some issues figuring out what Markakis had become as well. In 2012, he batted Markakis third the first part of the season, then moved him into the leadoff spot. He was having a solid season with a .293 average and .363 OBP when he got injured in September and missed the Orioles’ postseason appearance. Despite that success in the leadoff spot, Markakis hit all over the place in 2013 -- he started in six different spots in the lineup. This year, like Jones, he has played every game while starting in the leadoff spot.
Like Jones, that durability is a hidden asset. Other than in 2012, Markakis has been out there almost day, having played 160-plus games in five of his other six full seasons and 157 in the other. Think of all the time lost to injuries this season by star players across the league and remember that durability is as much a skill as hitting, running or throwing. The Orioles have two guys they know they can count on every game.
So maybe Markakis didn’t develop into a superstar hitter. You can debate why -- the pitching, decreased bat speed, something else -- but appreciate him for what he is: A solid player on a division-leading team. The Orioles have a $17.5 million team option for him next year; that might seem a lot for a guy who has never made an All-Star team, but you know what? I’d pick it up.