Jones is heading into the final year of his contract and the Orioles front office has so much on its pending free-agent plate that even he seems resigned to the possibility that he might get lost in the shuffle.
Not that he’s complaining about that. He told reporters at FanFest two months ago that he would be excited to enter the free-agent market if that’s what it comes down to. Jones said essentially the same thing late in spring training even though this winter’s free-agent freeze-out has cast some doubt on what the landscape will look like when some of the biggest names in the business, including Jones, could be shopping themselves to the highest bidders.
“Who wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t be excited to see people who have interest in them? Who wouldn’t want to gauge that?” Jones said. “I think it’s a very flattering part about the game. Granted, the last few years it has been unflattering to most, but it’s still a flattering-slash-humbling experience I’ve seen from afar.”
It might be hard for some Orioles fans to imagine seeing Jones from afar. He has been the de facto captain of the team throughout the franchise’s six-year competitive renaissance. Last year was a hiccup, but the Orioles have made several moves to shore up the rotation and outfield defense, and Jones said he’s looking forward to a turnaround this season.
“The team looks good,” Jones said. “A lot of guys are getting back healthy. … You see the guys getting in game shape. Once you get that, you get the reps, you get the innings and it’s time to go north.”
What he is not looking forward to is the constant drumbeat of contract talk that can become a distraction during the regular season, so he has all but ruled out any contract negotiations once the real games begin. That’s pretty much the team’s policy, too, but Jones was once the exception, signing his current six-year contract in May 2012.
There was a reason he was an exception. He was emerging as the leader of a resurgent team that was coming off 14 consecutive losing seasons. The Orioles thought he was special and they treated him as a special case.
Nothing has happened since then — except the inevitability of aging — to change that perception. Jones has been a steady performer both at the plate and in the field during a period when the Orioles have reached the playoffs three times in six seasons. He’s been an All-Star in the American League and in the community.
Still, he seems to understand that the makeup of the front office a year from now is as uncertain as the makeup of the Orioles lineup, so he’s willing to wait until next winter to see how it all shakes out. In the meantime, he doesn’t seem terribly interested in starting the contract conversation on the eve of the new season.
“Probably not,” Jones said, “because you as a player want to concentrate on the season and not be a burden to anybody, not be a burden to my teammates, keep your head clear and play some baseball. The guys are getting ready to play baseball. It’s winding down. The guys are getting in more and more shape, and were getting ready to go.”
If it sounds like Jones is getting ready to go somewhere else next season, that’s certainly a possibility. The Orioles might shift into a rebuilding mode or they just might decide that it’s time to get younger in center field.
Jones will be 33 on Aug. 1 and there’s no question that playing every day and averaging 147 games per year for the past decade has taken a toll on his body. But the numbers are still there and so is the hard-edged personality that has contributed so heavily to an Orioles team that has — by any metric — overachieved during the prime of his career.
If you think Jones will stick around under any circumstance because he has developed such deep roots in Baltimore, he is quick to disabuse anyone of that notion. Maybe it’s just an indirect message to the organization, but he made it clear that assuming he and his family aren’t willing to sink some roots somewhere else would be a miscalculation.
“I live in San Diego,” he said. “My family is able to help me with that part. My wife is from Baltimore, but we live in San Diego, so the first time … the first decision on a contract was majority mine. We were dating at the time. This one is not just my decision. The fact that my wife is from Baltimore is not a one-up for the franchise or a tactic to keep me there just because my wife’s family is from there. My wife loves the sun.
“It’s great that I was able to build that support system. When the wife’s happy, you’re happy. That’s the motto, isn’t it?”
Jones has been fairly consistent in his response to questions about his future. At FanFest, he referred such queries to Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette. He has left it up to the team to decide when and if to get serious about a contract extension, saying the only thing he can control is his performance this season.
“That’s always the best negotiation,” Jones said. “A player can only control what a player can control, so go out there and play the game hard and that’s all I can control.”
The possibility also exists that the club’s 2019 free-agent situation is already out of everyone’s control. The front office faces a long list of player personnel decisions and no one really knows who will be making them if everything is still unsettled seven months from now.
“The realization is that you have myself, Zach [Britton], [Manny] Machado, [Brad] Brach. … That’s the players,’’ Jones said. “And then you have Buck [Showalter] and Dan, the decision-makers. So you have six really important guys to the franchise, on the field, in the community and in the front office. Those are six really important guys.
“Then it comes down to the chess game. How many guys can you keep? How many guys do you want to keep? How many guys can you afford? And all these questions and answers I’ve got no answer for, because I’m not an economist and I don’t know what the books look like. I’m a ballplayer. That’s where I separate myself.”
The only power Jones acknowledges that he possesses is the power to say yes or no.
So, considering he said he would prefer to keep the business part outside the ballpark, what if the team finally comes to him during the season and wants to offer an extension?
Does he listen?
Jones didn’t let that question hang in the air very long.
“Only a deaf man wouldn’t,” he said.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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