Shifting positions

LSU's talented five-tool sophomore JaCoby Jones could get a shot in CF in 2012 after spending his summer season in the Cape Cod League getting used to a new position.

Change is something that LSU baseball player JaCoby Jones has embraced ever since he arrived on campus after spurning an offer from the Houston Astros to jump straight from high school to professional baseball last summer.

So when Tigers coach Paul Mainieri approached him late in the 2011 season about another possible position change, the Mississippi native simply rolled with the punches.

Turns out this latest move could pay big dividends for LSU and Jones if the first impressions are any indication.

After spending his freshman season almost exclusively at second base instead of third base or shortstop where he had played most of his life, Jones went to the Cape Cod League this summer and adjusted to another new and unfamiliar role.

After the Tigers' season abruptly ended without an NCAA Tournament bid, and with star center fielder Mikie Mahtook drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft, Mainieri began looking for some new and different options.

One thing Mainieri had already considered while the season was going on was shifting the five-tool Jones to the outfield. So when the freshman packed up and headed to play for the Harwich (Mass.) Mariners, Mainieri asked the team's coach, Steve Englert, to use Jones in center field as much as possible.

That certainly turned out to be a good fit.

"I loved it," said Jones, whose CCL season ended early when he jammed a shoulder sliding into the home plate. "It was really fun for me. I liked having a chance to show my range. I've got decent speed, I guess, and I like to run balls down out there. It's kind of like playing shortstop and showing you've got range.

"I'd love to play out there if that's where the team needs me the most next season."

Not only was the brief trial fun for Jones, it was also productive. The fact that Jones adapted well is music to Mainieri's ears.

"His coach told me by the time JaCoby was leaving, some of the scouts who were there all the time were telling him that he was the best center fielder in the Cape Cod League," Mainieri said. "I'm not surprise because he's such a great athlete and feel like he has the potential to find a spot there. It's certainly nice to know we have those options."

Englert, who is a Boston College assistant coach during the school year, said there's no doubt Jones could flourish as a center fielder at LSU and beyond.

"He can really go get it," Englert said. "You can tell he really enjoys play the position. Even in pregame batting practice, he's working hard to go get the ball.

"He has all the tools: He can fly, he has the plus arm and he puts on a show in batting practice."

There's still work to do, though.

Jones certainly transitioned well to second base, starting all 56 games there with only eight errors in 211 chances.

Now he might have to adjust again to a spot that's vital in college baseball, in part because of the BBCOR bats that place much more of a premium on outfield defense.

Besides that, Jones has a lofty legacy to uphold.

Mahtook has been the starting center fielder two of the last three seasons, with Leon Landry manning the position in 2010 and sharing it with Jared Mitchell in 2008. Each of those three is projected to spend time in the big leagues at some point.

"I have to learn to get good reads," Jones said. "Everybody is fast and the ball jumps off the bats when you're facing high-caliber hitters. I have to learn the right angles to take.

"This is a great challenge for me and I'm looking forward to it. I have really big shoes to fill, but I'd feel real comfortable out there."

Added Englert, "He needs to mature a little more. He really doesn't know how good he can be yet. If he starts doing that and gets better at all the little things, he could be a tremendous player for LSU next year."

For that to happen – for Jones to step in and possibly fill the offensive void left if Mahtook signs with the Rays as expected – he has to make a sizable step forward offensively.

As a freshman last season, Jones batted .338 with 11 doubles, four home runs, 36 runs and 32 RBIs. He got off to a hot start, dipped when the SEC season began and came on strong again at the end.

After Jones' batting average dipped to .299 (only time under .300 all season), he hit a robust .431 (25-for-58) over the final 16 games with six doubles, 15 runs and nine RBIs. Jones hit in 15 of those 16 contests with eight multi-hit games, and closed out the season on an 11-game hitting streak.

Facing top-notch pitching every night in the Cape Cod League, Jones batted only .234 (11-for-47) in 14 games with 11 strikeouts.

"I worked at trying to recognize off-speed pitches better and learned how to take pitches the other way more," Jones said. "It was a good learning experience for me."

Englert said it's not uncommon for freshmen who come to the Cape for the first time to scuffle offensively as they get acclimated to front-line pitching every game.

The difference with Jones, Englert said, is that he didn't get flustered by his offensive dropoff. Instead he just worked harder.

"A lot of kids really struggle when they come up here after their freshman year because it's a different challenge than they've faced before," Englert said. "JaCoby is right up there if he matures a little more. There's no doubt the sky is the limit for him."

Between the lines, Jones figures to get better naturally as he matures physically and mechanically.

In the dugout and clubhouse, Jones' evolution will likely take more of a conscious effort.

With Mahtook as the emotional touchstone last season, Jones tended to follow quietly along. Now, along with seniors Austin Nola, Tyler Hanover and Grant Dozar and junior Mason Katz, Jones is in a prime spot to have a more important voice and role as a leader.

"I feel like I can be one of the leaders on the team," he said. "We all need to be leaders and show strong character on the field because we have a chance to be a much better team than last year with all the pitching we have coming back and the kind of experience we have at most positions."

In particular, with a second baseman-turned-center fielder who still has an awful lot of potential to tap.


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