You take chances with strikeout arms. You never really know when they will be able to put it all together and turn their obvious potential into positive results. If they can provide some organizational depth, all the better. That’s why the Braves inked Tyler Jones to a minor league contract before the season. Cut by the Minnesota Twins in the final week of spring training, he was not unemployed long as the Braves swooped in. Whether he becomes a surprise or not and depresses Twins fans on the “what could have been?” is unknown.
Born in Milwaukee on September 5, 1989, Jones was born on a day that ended like many days in 1989 – with the Braves losing. John Smoltz got the start at home against the Padres that day and the double play combo of Jeff Treadway and Andres Thomas led to three unearned runs. Jones attended Marquette High School and helped pilot them to a pair of state titles while also being All-Conference in football. His measurables were enticing. He would grow to be a 6’4″ right-hander with velocity above 90 mph. But he wasn’t drafted out of high school and attended Madison Area Technical College to play with the WolfPack. After a freshman year that was spent largely as a reliever, Jones came into his own in 2010 with 14 games and 10 starts, seven of which he completed with his first collegiate shutout. He K’d more than a batter an inning.
His success in 2010 garnered both bigger college offers and MLB interest. With a chance to play in the SEC at Louisiana State on the table, Jones was selected in the 21st round by the White Sox. He ultimately did not sign and headed south to LSU. He started the season strong, including a three-hit shutout of the University of New Orleans on May 17, 2011 that included 15 strikeouts and just one walk. He was even named Player of the Week for that dominant performance. He remained a positive for the Tigers until conference play began when the hits just kept coming. At that point, he was shifted to the pen and finished the year with less than 40 innings as his struggles couldn’t be hid by the Tigers.
Still, there was something to like and the Twins spent an 11th rounder on Jones to woo the philosophy-religion major away from a return to LSU. The $105,000 bonus also helped. The 11th round of the 2011 draft has produced just one major leaguer so far (Seth Maness). The Braves selection that year came two picks before Jones when they picked Seth Moranda, who the Atlanta cut last June. Jones would pitch four times for Elizabethton in the Appalachain League after signing to underwhelming numbers.
In 2012, the Twins gave Jones one year as a starter. The K’s were impressive (102 in 86.2 ING) and the control wasn’t too concerning. The fact that he struggled to put away batters was. His stuff led to a good number of hits and those baserunners too often scored, leaving Jones with an ERA of 4.67 for the year. The Twins decided Jones was better suited for the bullpen after 2012. He played for both Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers in 2013, looking much better in the former. Overall, the Twins were happy with the numbers that included a 1.09 WHIP and 11.4 K/9 over 52.1 ING. He was often used as the closer and saved 13 games for the Twins, good for third in the organization in saves.
Returning to Fort Myers in 2014, Jones struggled with control for the first time and his K numbers fell. He remained too hittable and his ERA climbed to 3.73 with a 1.42 WHIP, numbers that won’t entice much of a look. He did save 13 more games, which ranked second in the organization, but overall, it was the kind of year that won’t get you pushed along.
“I don’t have much for him, personally. I mean, what has he done?” Mientkiewicz said of Jones. “Hopefully we get him out of here soon. That would be nice. With his stuff, he should be doing a lot better than what he is. Too many walks. There are a lot of little things that go into pitching late in the game. It’s got more to do with stuff. You’ve got to hold runners. You’ve got to field your position. You’ve got to do things that we as a team have definitely struggled with. His stuff is too good to be hit.”
That’s why it wasn’t surprising when the Twins cut him at the end of camp. Jones was probably one of those bubble guys who needed to make the AA roster in spring to stick and once that didn’t happen, younger guys were kept over another return trip to Fort Myers. That kind of thing happens all the time in spring training. In our minds, we only seem to care about what’s happening in the major league camp, but people are fighting for their jobs up-and-down the system.
As I said, the Braves came calling. Needing help at their advanced A-club in Carolina, the Braves found a guy with the kind of resume you take a flyer on – mid 90’s fastball and the ability to induce groundballs. It wasn’t long ago that Jones was a borderline prospect in the Twins system after all. He has been employed as the Mudcats closer so far, saving two games in three outings and striking out five in 2.2 ING. He’s worth keeping an eye on this season.