“Once everything is agreed upon, and questions about when the season will start and how it’ll look are resolved, teams can begin addressing some of their own pressing matters for the year ahead.”
I wrote this in May, back when MLB was attempting to put a 2020 campaign in place. The pressing matter I was referring to at the time was what the Cleveland Indians were going to do with Nolan Jones.
Jones -- ranked by MLB Pipeline as the No. 42 prospect in baseball -- could still use some seasoning in the minors, an opportunity which won’t be available this summer. As a result, the Indians had to figure out how to ensure his development wasn’t paused one year before a big league vacancy opened up for him.
The season has now been determined and, technically, so has the fate of Jones. The Indians have 60 games to play this year, but Jones and 14 other prospects will train together off-site.
On the surface, it appears this issue is figured out. Cleveland can focus on the season ahead, doing so without having to worry about Jones spending an entire summer collecting rust.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. In fact, even with Jones’ 2020 plans determined, you could argue the Indians still have some complications to navigate when it comes to their top prospect.
For one, barring unforeseen circumstances, the path for Jones remains the same.
Though the Indians never said as much, their decision to sign second baseman César Hernández to a one-year deal last winter seemed to indicate Jones was being considered for 2021. After he received some time in Triple-A, he could make the move to the majors next season, slotting in at third while José Ramírez shifted over to second once Hernández’s contract expired.
Right now, the only significant alteration is Jones’ inability to log Triple-A playing time this summer. Hernández’s deal still wraps up after this season, so unless Cleveland aims to re-up with him after seeing him play just one 60-game campaign, there’ll be an infield opening next year.
Do the Indians feel Jones is far enough along in his development that he can still step into that role in 2021? Are they convinced a few months of off-site training should ensure he’s all set to become their starting third baseman next season?
If so, great, the Tribe can officially kick this can down the road.
If not, well, the team has to figure out ways to get him the progress he needs, progress which may not come from off-site scrimmages.
You could make the argument Cleveland needs to give Jones a look this season just to get a better idea of how far along he is. It doesn’t sound so crazy when considering the lack of live game action he’ll receive this summer and combining it with Hernández’s expiring contract.
This route is hardly an easy one, though. Just opening it up for consideration creates several significant hurdles.
To start, a 60-game season all but effectively eliminates any team’s ability to mess around in the coming months. Every contest carries extra weight, meaning most, if not all experiments need to be shelved in order to prioritize the sprint to the postseason.
It's important to note this when considering Jones receiving playing time this year means taking innings away from Hernández. In an abbreviated season, one would think you’d want to avoid robbing games from a proven vet to give your prospect a fair evaluation.
Speaking of which, how much playing time would qualify as “enough” for Jones? Determining this is quite a task on its own.
For example, what if Cleveland tries to get him a ten-game audition? It’s not much, but it also represents 16.7% of the entire season. That’s a significant chunk of this abbreviated campaign being dedicated to gauging Jones, yet still not nearly enough time to know if he can hang in the majors.
Not to pile on, but any route involving a Jones call-up also requires shifting Ramírez back and forth from third base to second. It’s certainly asking a lot of him, and considering how crucial he’ll be this year, you’d ideally want to avoid throwing him off his rhythm too frequently.
Essentially, barring an injury, any attempt to get Jones some big league playing time this year risks going too far down the road of prioritizing a top prospect over winning games.
So, even though Cleveland found a home for Jones this summer, his situation isn’t any less complicated. In fact, it might be even more convoluted than before.
Jones could still find himself in the Tribe's clubhouse as soon as next season. However, it remains to be determined just how quickly he can adapt to the big leagues.
If the Indians still believe he needs more development, they’ll have to figure out a way to get him some this season without risking the team’s overall success.
As pointed out here, this task is far easier said than done.