ST. PETERSBURG — In his heart of hearts, Greg Jones will always be a shortstop. But after being picked by the Rays in the first round of the 2019 draft, the middle infielder with “game-changing” speed has accepted the fact it may not be where he finds himself if he is going to make it to the big leagues.
With the Rays’ shortstop spot seemingly occupied for the long term by Wander Franco, Jones this week began trying to find another route to the majors. Thursday, he played centerfield for the first time in his professional career. He is expected to be there again during this weekend’s trip to the east coast of Florida.
“I’m definitely open about it,” Jones, 25, said earlier this week. “As I’m getting a little older, getting in a little bit more mature, I’m seeing that any way to get to the big leagues is something I’m willing to take. So, I mean, if this is another route, then I’m all for it.”
This isn’t one of the Rays’ cutting-edge ideas. In fact, they had a pretty similar situation about 20 years ago.
The Rays drafted BJ Upton in the first round of the 2002 draft as a shortstop. He played a total of 16 big-league games there. But he went on to have a very successful 12-year big-league career playing 1,278 games in the outfield.
“I kind of liked that comparison,” Jones said.
One difference: Upton arrived in the big leagues with an already polished bat. Jones is still figuring that out as he progresses through the minors.
Jones, who played at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, has hit .273 with a .358 on base and .440 slugging percentage in 199 minor-league games over three seasons. He has a .798 OPS and 90 stolen bases.
He was promoted to Double-A Montgomery last year but struggled with his bat. He hit .238, his strikeout rate went up to 35.8%, and his walk rate dropped to 7.5%.
Though he was inconsistent at the plate, Jones continued to use his speed. He stole 37 bases at Montgomery and was caught only five times.
It’s that speed the Rays think will help him transition to the outfield and maybe find his path to the big leagues.
“The good thing about Jonesy right now is that his speed is going to overcome maybe some bad reads,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “But it’s fun to watch him out there, and he covers a lot of ground.”
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Those reads are especially difficult at Tropicana Field, where even veteran outfielders find it difficult due to the canvas dome and low lighting.
Jones’ adventures in the outfield aren’t entirely new. He played there a bunch in Little League and a few times in the Cape Cod League during college. This spring, he’s shagged balls in the outfield when he can and worked with seasoned outfielders and coaches.
“All of our guys are giving me coaching,” Jones said. “I’m trying to get as much information from all the outfielders, outfield coordinators, coaches as I can. But I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t nervous about it.
“But I’ve been taking some (fly balls) out there in the Trop, and I feel if I can catch them out there, I can catch them anywhere.”
As Thursday’s game went on, Jones got more comfortable and made better reads. He was able to make plays because of his speed, which will translate to lead confidence in the outfield and more opportunities.
“I feel like that’s a really big tool in my game,” he said. “So I am gonna use it. If that means they want me to use it in the outfield, I will.
“When I get a chance to use it, I will let it burn.”
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