Nolan Jones has been activated off the IL for the first time in 2022. Let’s talk about the expectations for him during the rest of the current campaign.
Nolan Jones has the not-so-illustrious distinction of being a former top prospect in the Cleveland Guardians organization, and having lost that title without ever receiving a call-up to the Show. Ticketed as a hot-hitting, power-laden third baseman when brought into the system, he has seen his stock ascend and dip as injuries and some hiccups marred his 2021 season.
There is hope for Jones, however, as he has finally been activated off the IL and rejoined the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Although he is no longer Cleveland’s #1 overall prospect, he still has the potential to be a contributing member of the major-league club. Let’s break down some of the expectations for Jones now that he is back out on the diamond for the organization.
What made Nolan Jones Cleveland’s #1 prospect in the first place?
Jones was a second-round pick by Cleveland in the 2016 draft. As he played through his first couple of MiLB seasons, he displayed strong physical traits, in addition to good power and bat-to-ball skills. Jones was noted for his power potential coming from his 6’4″ frame, and got on base at generally good clips. He did strikeout a fairly significant amount, but his BABIP never dipped below .346 prior to his 2021 season.
Through his first three years in the organization (excluding his 2016 stint in the Arizona Rookie League in 2016), Jones showed steady progression and burgeoning power at each stop. At Mahoning Valley in 2017, Jones slashed .317/.430/.482, good for an OPS of .912. Jones not only hit well, but worked a walk rate of 16.2%, showing a well-developed approach at the plate for a youngster.
Between stops in Low-A Lake County and High-A Lynchburg in 2018 (they’ve since been flipped following the restructuring of the short-season circuit), Jones slashed a combined .283/.405/.466, with 19 home runs and a career-high 66 RBI. He saw his strikeouts creep up a bit, but was still able to walk at a strong clip to help offset them.
In 2019, Jones made the jump from Lynchburg to Double-A Akron after the halfway point in the season. He played well for the Hillcats, and didn’t lose much steam when he took the field in Canal Park for the RubberDucks. In his Akron stint in 2019, Jones slashed .253/.370/.466, walking 31 times in 178 at-bats, with a wRC+ of 147. His numbers dipped a slight amount during the jump to Double-A, but at the age of 21 the ceiling was still sky-high.
Jones would unfortunately lose his 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, missing a year of crucial development that would have eased him toward Triple-A in a more structured manner.
From short-season Mahoning Valley to Double-A Akron, Jones showed that he could get the bat on the ball, make solid contact with bursts of power, and could work walks at a consistent rate. Between solid defense on the infield and a highly rated arm when fielding, things looked great for the ascending prospect.
What happened in 2021?
The 2021 season was a different beast for a lot of minor-leaguers. Without a full slate of games for an entire season, many prospects seemingly lost a step coming back from the layoff, and Jones was a part of that trend in some respects.
Joining the Triple-A Columbus Clippers at the outset of the campaign, Jones seemed like a sure bet to be called up at some point in the year. He worked on playing the outfield to provide himself with some positional diversity (due to a certain GOAT at the hot corner in Cleveland), and all indicators were pointing in the right direction for him to be a contributor for the then-Indians.
As the season picked up and he put together some work, it became obvious Jones was running into some problems. His batting average would dip to .238, coupled with a strikeout rate that touched 30.0%. The jump from Akron to Columbus was not as smooth as many hoped going into 2021.
Couple those struggles at the plate with an ankle injury to end his season, and Jones’ prospects were not nearly as bright as at the outset of the season. He would undergo surgery to help stabilize his ankle following the sprain, and start 2022 on the IL before finally returning to the action.
What should we hope for this season?
With the young outfielders making headway for the Guardians so far this season and in the absence of substantial injuries, it is unlikely we will see much of Jones in Cleveland in 2022. Steven Kwan, Richie Palacios and Oscar Gonzalez have all carved out roles with the major-league club, leaving a blocked pathway in the outfield. Third base is also a shut door (for reasons we’ve already touched on), making the road to the shores of Lake Erie all the more difficult.
What fans should look for as he gets going is for Jones to return to his consistent hitting, higher-powered version of himself. If he can get the strikeouts down and continue walking at a solid clip, he can begin to work himself in line in case someone is needed in Cleveland due to injuries or other unforeseen circumstances. Being his second year with Columbus, projecting some statistical progression is completely within the bounds of reality.
Another potential scenario for Jones could be that he is packaged in a trade if the Guardians decide to add to an area of need. He is still a highly enough rated prospect that he could be a big piece in a trade, and joining another organization could give him a better avenue to the majors whether it is at third base or in the outfield.
Overall, the Guardians can always use more options in an outfield that has been a years-long game of musical chairs. The best case scenario for Jones is that he helps provide some stability if an avenue does open for him, but the reality of the situation says that is a long shot in the near-future. The 24-year-old could still have a productive career as a Guardian, but he needs to show he can cut it with Columbus, and await his chance. As fans, we can only hope that he rediscovers some of what helped make him the number-one overall prospect for the franchise.