The Cleveland Professional Baseball club has not been overflowing with highly rated position player prospects. While the team can seemingly construct a continuous parade of pitchers from command/control college picks, advanced feel prep picks, or a small ball of clay, it would be kind to say that offensive player development has been a weakness over the past five years.
Beyond Francisco Lindor, and Jose Ramirez two elite contact and barrel control types, Cleveland has not developed even a league average position player since they reached the big leagues in 2015. But for historic and potentially unsustainable ability to develop and construct big league pitchers, a team in this market trying to contend with that run of position player development dearth would be impossible.
When one hears league average it often sounds like a slur but it is not. Franmil Reyes is a league average player, and very likely the teams second best returning position player for 2021. League average is between 1.5 and 2.5 WAR, obviously Reyes, is carried to that mark with above average offense and defensive limitations.
Be it Bradley Zimmer, Bobby Bradley, or Yu Chang, none of the team’s leading position player prospects over the last few years have been able to reach the big leagues and look like league average starters. Indeed, the best position player prospect breakouts have happened for other orgs be it Anthony Santander in Baltimore, or Clint Frazier in New York.
Unfortunately for Nolan Jones, he is closing in on almost two years of being the organizations most highly rated prospect. There is of course variation, George Valera, Tyler Freeman, Bo Naylor, Daniel Espino, and Brayan Rocchio have all received their share of hype, and rightly so, the organization has become tremendously deep at the lower levels with a plethora of up the middle talent.
Still Nolan Jones carries the mantle of expectations which comes with having been hyped for almost four years. Jones of course deserves the hype in many ways, he is a tireless worker who has worked incredibly hard with the player development staff to improve his defense at 3rd base. Jones work ethic, and approach is given rave reviews from anyone you talk to in the organization who crosses paths with him.
With heightened expectations it is important to discuss or consider the range of outcomes that are reasonable to expect of Nolan Jones. There are no certainties in projection which is why, it is important to talk more about most likely outcomes than ceiling, which is nearly impossible to pin down. Jones has two key skills which sit in the offensive bucket- discipline and raw power. Jones has tremendous raw power to all fields, and his batting practice displays often include numerous home runs to dead center and the opposite field.
Jones has run mostly good not great isolated power numbers in the minors but not high enough to suggest he has gotten enough of his raw power into games. With Jones raw power, one will want to dream on 30 home run seasons but Jones will need to make significant gains to get his power into games enough to reach that threshold. Obviously, like any other prospect, there is limited or no data or tape to review from 2020, and only organizational commentary which with their interest in the player’s success is not wholly reliable information.
Jones’ greatest strength is his discipline. Jones runs elite, unmatched minor league walk rates that should anchor his OBP into an always passable level. In 2019, Nolan Jones had the highest walk rate of any player with at least 150 plate appearances at an single-a or single-a+ affiliate.
Age and level are very important to consider and in 2019, at 21, Nolan Jones had 200+ plate appearances at AA Akron, Jones had the fourth best walk rate in minor league baseball for players 22 and younger, at AA or AAA, with 14.7%. Two of the three above him were Yordan Alvarez and Trent Grisham. His discipline is an elite skill.
When players run walk rates between 14% and 20% throughout multiple stops and strikeout rates between 22% and 29%, there become questions around discipline to the point of passivity, this is not a defining issue for Jones but a majority of Jones plate appearances are deep counts which can elevate strikeout rate as a byproduct. Differing from Mike Papi, former Cleveland farmhand who had an adversarial relationship with swinging the bat.
At Akron in 2019, Jones had a completely average swinging strike rate of 11.1% which for his power-laden/patient profile is a positive factor, in his time at Lynchburg, Jones was at 7.2%, a really good swinging strike rate against similar aged competition.
The organization previously has had issues getting toolsy windmill types like Bobby Bradley, and Bradley Zimmer to make just enough contact into games to allow their loud tools to shine through. However, both of those players ran gargantuan swinging strike rates, which is distinct from Jones profile.
Jones certainly will strike out significantly but the underlying swinging strike numbers suggest the issue will not balloon and paralyze his profile to the extent it has for Bradley and Zimmer so far. For all the above reasons, Nolan Jones is projected to have a high floor offensively.
Dan Szymborski‘s ZIPS projects Jones for a 99 wRC+ in his big league debut, with 100 wRC+ being league average. With the team working out Jones in a corner outfield spot with a plus arm and decent athleticism, this is a really nice floor. However, the instantaneous reaction, I expect, is that projecting league average offense for the organization’s premier upper level prospect, who is a bat first player is not really what the prospect hype machine has created in terms of expectations.
Of course, projections are just highest probability outcomes based on data, and obviously having no 2020 data makes it difficult. Jones is likely projected to peak with multiple 25 home run seasons, and wRC+ in the 105-110 wRC+ range. This is a league average or better player for a team that dearly needs that type of player at an affordable rate. Yet, Jones could be much more, with his raw power there is potential for 30+ home run season if he can put the ball in the air with more frequency.
Then final expectation concern, is that if not already clear, Jones is going to be a three-true-outcome type player, with a strikeout, walk, and home run frequency likely to clear 50%. While this type of player is not inherently flawed or less valuable, baseball traditionalists are not in love with this profile, and often find it aesthetically poor and worth criticizing.
If there was a larger to point to this meandering, Nolan Jones is a very good prospect in that he has a strong probability of being a big league starter or better, with a more limited probability of leaping up to impact player production. With Jones as with any prospect, expectations need to be tampered down or else fans can risk being disappointed by unfair standards.