(Photo: Ken Iness, MiLB; Graphics: Justin Lada)
Welcome to the 2020 IBI Top 50 Indians Prospect Countdown. This year’s list and reports have been compiled by Indians Baseball Insider Editor-in-Chief Justin Lada, IBI contributor Willie Hood and other IBI staff members.
#1 Nolan Jones – 3B
Born: 05/07/1998 – Height: 6’2 – Weight: 185 – Bats: Left; Throws: Right
Facts & Info: Jones was part of the Indians successful 2016 draft class that has already produced Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale. Jones was the Indians second round pick in that draft, opting to take Will Benson in the first round and then went overslot to sign Jones for $2.250 million to entice him away from his commitment to Penn State. In 2020 Jones split time between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Akron, compiling a line of .279/.409/.442 with 15 homers, 22 doubles and 63 RBI. He played in the Futures Game during All-Star week in Cleveland in 2019.
Offense: With a slightly open stance and holding his hands high at his head level, there are some similarities in Jones’ stance to a young Jim Thome after Charlie Manuel opened his stance in the early 90s, though Thome had a much more open stance. Jones’ leg kick is a little more pronounced and closes his hips and turns his back towards the pitcher some. He does bring his hands down during his leg kick, so there’s some movement there. He does bring his hands back before his swing too. He uses his hands well to control the bat, but his long levers due make contact a bit of an issue. He does a tremendous job keeping his head on the ball and his hands back as he clears his hips. What makes Jones #1 prospect worthy and on several Top 100 lists sport wide is his plate discipline. At 21 and at Double-A for the first time, Jones has tremendous control of the strike zone as a hitter, rarely chases bad pitches and isn’t afraid to work deep counts. The caveat of the deep counts he works is that he does have some swing in miss in his bat due to being a long, lanky athlete but it’s not usually due to chasing far out of the zone. He goes to the plate and knows what he wants up there. His ability to work walks along with plus raw power and above average game power makes him an easy three-true outcomes hitter which can be successful at the corner positions given the way he works walks. He does have issues against left handers, but he works walks well enough against southpaws that he’ll still be playable against them and may get better with experience, but it is a knock against his overall future value but it won’t completely take him out of having value against them in a lineup. Strength wise, Jones has 40 homer power but some of the swing and miss issues, ground ball tendencies and lack of focus on pull limit him to about 25 homers. With some tweaks, Jones could tap into more power that’s in the body and ability.
Defense: Back in 2017 when Jones made his debut at Lake County, he made a handful of errors in the first week at third base. It was cold, early in the year and Jones was still raw at third. Since then he’s improved. While he lacks some overall range, he’s worked diligently with the Indians minor league coaches including John McDonald to improve. He’s controlled his sheer body size he grew into when he was drafted, which many thought was going to force him off the hot corner. He’s improved enough that he can stay at third base initially but eventually may still be better served to move to first or right field. He has a top of the scale arm that will play at third base or right field, but the bat is going to play at any corner spot. At younger ages, Jones will be able to take his improvements in his footwork to stay at third as an average defender. Footwork was something the Indians noted the most with Jones, who was a hockey player in high school and undoing some of the footwork skating that doesn’t translate to a first step and using your feet on the dirt and that area has improved for him.
Speed & Intangibles: For as big and strong as Jones looks, he’s a pretty good athlete and moves well. However, speed isn’t going to be part of his game. He did have seven steals last year but he’s really going to be a below average runner, but that’s not uncommon for 6’4”, 220lbs ball players. Jones has relentlessly worked to improve defensively, spending extra time on infield work with coaches as well as in the batting cage.
Advanced Stats: Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Runs Created Plus (DRC+) created last year to take into account a hitters expected contribution, rather than actual output, measured Jones out at 150 DRC+ at Akron, while Fangraphs’ wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) had him at 147, which means his expected offensive output measures just slightly a little better than his actual offensive output. DRC+ is a little more reliably predictive, so that Jones’ numbers in Double-A match the measurement of his offensive output is an encouraging sign of his skills being translatable to the majors.
Future: Jones will likely start 2020 at Double-A Akron and it’s reasonable to think he’ll be able to get at least a half season in Triple-A Columbus as well. It would take a long term injury to either Jose Ramirez or Cesar Hernandez for Jones to probably make his big league debut in 2020. Given the way the Indians handle their prospects, especially position players, Jones would really have to force their hand. He’d probably be able to hold his own offensively for a half season or more as he gets his feet under him. In 2021 you’d probably also see the Indians leave him in Columbus for service time early on and eventually bring him along to play third base and move Jose Ramirez to second. There’s still some moderate risk to Jones’ profile. Issues with left handed pitching could limit his success and if he can be average at third base defensively over the long term, and his strikeout rate. But, it seems safe to see that Jones is going to hit for slightly above average power and he’s going to work a lot of walks. At third base, a three true outcome offensive contributor can provide significant offensive value, even if the defense is just average. We think Jones can provide offensive levels similar to Carlos Santana against right handed pitching, though lefties may reduce that overall value. He probably won’t play third base his entire big league career, but he’s worked hard enough and is a decent enough athlete where the Indians can put him there for now and let that play out until they would have a better option. But his bat will help him stay there or on the field long term anyway.
#1 (2019), #4 (2018), #7 (2017)
– Justin Lada