Adam Jones has been one of the most valuable players in baseball this season, helping the Orioles to a surprising 28-17 start that has them in first place in the American League East with the second-best record in all of baseball. On Thursday, he was rewarded for that good work with a contract extension that Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported is worth around $85 million over six years.
Yesterday, I listed Baltimore's 26-year-old centerfielder as the fourth most valuable player in the American League to this point in the season. Based on what he has done at the plate this year, his youth, his position and the $160 million contract fellow centerfielder Matt Kemp signed this past offseason, Jones would appear to be worth far more money than the Orioles are about to give him.
A closer look, however, reveals that Jones is unlikely to sustain his current rate of production. As a result, the Orioles aren't getting the sort of bargain the Pirates got in March when they signed Andrew McCutchen, a better player further away from free agency, for $51.5 million over six years. Baltimore did prevent Jones from testing the market, where he might have been overvalued, but it seems unlikely that they saved any money at all with this deal relative to Jones' actual on-field value.
Entering Friday, Jones has hit .311/.357/.601 with 14 home runs and 29 RBIs in the first quarter of his fifth season as a major league regular. If that's the player he is going to be going forward, this deal, which would have an annual average value of $14 million, could actually be a bargain for the Orioles. However, there are doubts that Jones will continue to produce at that level. Those concerns are not age-related. Assuming Jones' new contract takes effect next year, replacing his final season of arbitration eligibility (Jones was due to become a free agent after the 2013 season), it will only take him through his age-32 season. Rather, the most impressive parts of Jones' performance this season -- his .601 slugging percentage and 14 home runs -- represent a significant spike over his past power performances, and that doesn't seem likely to last.
Prior to this season, Jones' career high in home runs was 25, his career high in isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) was .185, and the highest rate at which his fly balls turned into home runs was 12.4 percent. Granted, all of those career highs were from last year, but this year his ISO is .290 and 22.6 percent of his fly balls are leaving the ballpark.
To put the latter figure in perspective, from 2002 to 2004, when Barry Bonds averaged 45 home runs a year despite being walked nearly 200 times a year and seemed to hit the ball out every time he took the bat off his shoulder, his fly balls left the ballpark 24.2 percent of the time. To be sure, Jones is a good player -- there's pop in his bat, and he's just entering his prime, meaning he's still finding out what he can do in this game -- but he's not last decade's Barry Bonds. Another comparison: Prior to this year, Albert Pujols' fly balls left the park 15.6 percent of the time. Jones' power numbers are going to regress, likely soon.
Then there is his batting average. Jones is hitting .311 right now. He hit .282 over the last two seasons and isn't having any unusual luck on his balls in play dropping for hits, so it may be that he can flirt with .300 on a regular basis. Counting Manny Ramirez, though, there are just nine active hitters with lifetime averages at or above .311, so Jones' average is going to trend downward as well, even if only slightly.
So let's say Jones is a .290 hitter with a .200 isolated slugging. Those are excellent numbers, but that's a surprisingly large part of what he can do. Jones doesn't walk much, so, using his established rate of posting an on-base percentage about 40 points above his batting average, a full slash line based on those assumptions would look something like .290/.330/.490. Jones is a centerfielder and has a lithe, athletic build, but he's not a very good basestealer. In fact, the only category he leads the American League in right now is caught stealing, and over the last three seasons he has been successful in only 62.5 percent of his steal attempts, far below the MLB average of 71.3 percent.
Defensively, Jones won the Gold Glove in 2009, makes his share of highlight-reel plays and has a fantastic throwing arm, but there is a lot of disagreement among the advanced statistics about his actual defensive value. Ultimate Zone Rating had him significantly below average in each of the last three seasons, as did John Dewan's plus/minus system. Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs were more favorable, suggesting he might indeed have earned that Gold Glove, but had him below average last year. Total Zone has him closer to average, but still on the negative side.
Dewan broke down the issues with Jones' fielding in Volume III of his Fielding Bible, published earlier this year. According to Dewan, no centerfielder over the past three years has taken more bad routes or broken in the wrong direction more often. Dewan also reports that Jones often gives runners extra bases (compared to the average centerfielder) on low-trajectory fly balls hit into the gaps and by mishandling balls after they fall for hits. That's damning to be sure, and given the aggregate of the four defensive systems mentioned above, it seems difficult to view Jones as any better than an average defensive centerfielder and very likely that he falls short of that standard.
The upside to all of this remains Jones' youth and the relative affordability of his average annual salary. The Dodgers' Kemp, a clearly superior player who is just one year older than Jones, is the only centerfielder with a larger contract right now, but the total value of Kemp's eight-year, $160 million deal is nearly twice that of what Jones' will be. Jones' extension will look even better after Josh Hamilton,a pending free-agent who is 31 this season -- just a year younger than Jones will be in the final year of his new deal -- signs his next deal, which has a good chance of breaking $100 million.
Still, when a team signs a player this far in advance of his free agency, its goal is typically to leverage the uncertainty of the intervening seasons to tie up that player for less than he is worth, as the Pirates did with McCutchen. The Orioles did not do that with Jones.