On the occasion of Orioles center fielder Adam Jones' fifth annual charity tailgate before the Ravens game tonight, it's fair to wonder just how long the team's standout outfielder for the past decade will be around Baltimore for such events.
With a year left on his contract and the team looking at a set of major decisions next fall, Jones' future with the club he's spent nearly all of his major league career with could well be determined by how the next year goes for both parties.
Jones, 31, had a bounce-back offensive season in 2017, batting .285/.322/.466 with a 107 wRC+ and 26 home runs in 147 games. He hit all over the Orioles' lineup, and had the distinction of staying relatively stable throughout the team's worst slumps, at times trying to pull his team out of them himself.
Many defensive metrics viewed what he did unfavorable for the second straight season, with his -14.4 UZR/150 the worst of his career and the second straight negative season he's had in that category. (UZR/150 credits or debits a fielder based on the likely run value of batted balls hit into his area, and averaged over 150 games, projects that out over a full season).
Jones assented to the front office's request for him to play deeper and prevent extra-base hits that could bring his metrics back up, as happened in 2016 with Dexter Fowler of the Chicago Cubs. Many around the club have pointed out that the difference in corner outfielders could make a difference in those two cases, but the point still stands that Jones' future in the outfield needs to be addressed, possibly before his future with the club can be.
For the first time in years, the Orioles will enter camp with some viable prospect depth in center field, with Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins both capable of playing center field at a serviceable level come 2018.
While it's not yet time for Jones to move off the position entirely — such a move wasn't handled delicately in Pittsburgh last year with Andrew McCutchen and will require more deft maneuvering in this case — the presence of either on the major league roster could create a positive situation for Jones next season.
Acknowledging that the Orioles get far better offensive production from Mark Trumbo when he's in the field, plus the team's desire to keep Jones healthy for a full season, the Orioles could easily let Hays play center field once a week, pushing Trumbo to right field and allowing Jones to serve as the designated hitter. Same goes for Mullins if he ends up on the roster.
Both Jones and the Orioles know that the key to a strong next act to his career will be finding a way to keep him fresh, and that might mean keeping him away from center field long term. He's still a productive offensive player, and that could sustain itself for several seasons beyond this one.
But keeping everyone satisfied during a pivotal transition in his career will make 2018 — whether it's the end of Jones' time with the Orioles or the beginning of a new chapter — a positive one for all sides.
Getting this right could mean keeping Jones in an Orioles uniform for the rest of his career.