Sarasota, Fla. — Adam Jones' free agency turned out to be a lot like his time with the Orioles: polarizing.
That's not to say there’s any question that his decade-plus in an Orioles uniform was enough to make him one of the most beloved players in club history. He was, and will remain, a part of their lore, and was the face of teams that broke the organization's streak of 14 straight losing seasons.
Unfortunately for him, he reached free agency this offseason at a time when all that currency continued to be worth little in terms of real free-agency dollars. He settled for a reported $3 million on a one-year deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday, according to multiple reports.
But before he did, like in so many aspects of Jones' career, he became the subject of a local and national philosophical debate without a lot of middle ground.
For the Orioles, Jones was a pretty clear marker on whether fans were wholly bought in on the idea of a to-the-studs roster teardown and rebuild. A vocal portion of the team's fans wanted him back in 2019 regardless while others saw the team's stock of outfield prospects and decided it was time to move on. There was little ambiguity.
The list of reasons to bring Jones back could basically be boiled down to one item: that it would make people feel good. The other side of the ledger, including everything from the young players he’d be blocking from taking a roster spot in the major leagues to how rebuilds similar to what the Orioles are embarking on don’t typically include re-signing veterans, plus the fact that he would still have the right to refuse a trade, ultimately won out.
On a global baseball level, Jones' free agency was emblematic of an evolving compensation structure in which veteran players on the market simply aren't getting paid for past performance the way they used to.
Fans and analysts either look at the likes of Jones, closer Craig Kimbrel and former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel being left out in the cold into March in favor of younger, cost-controlled talent and say it’s bad for the game, or they embrace the evaluating tools that inform such decisions, ignore the off-field impact a player like Jones demonstrated he can make on a team and city, and call it progress.
It’s clear which side of that dichotomy the Major League Baseball Players Association falls on.
“We’re glad to see Adam has found a home with the Diamondbacks for the 2019 season,” executive director Tony Clark said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun. “Obviously, it took an unusually long time for an opportunity to develop for him, as it has for many quality free-agent players the past two off-seasons, including some who remain without jobs today.”
Jones' game was one that always espoused strong opinions in the old school-versus-new school sense. He earned a reputation as one of the game's best defensive center fielders, and the voting body for the Gold Glove Award believed that to be the case in 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014.
By two of the most widely accepted defensive metrics, Jones wasn't regarded favorably in his Gold Glove seasons. Jones had a negative ultimate zone rating per 150 games (UZR/150) in three of those four seasons, and negative defensive runs saved (DRS) in two of them. There hasn't been a lot of middle ground when it comes to evaluations of Jones' defense. Just as many people could watch him patrol center field, take away hits and throw out runners and believe he was the best at what he did in the field as could look at the numbers and say he wasn't.
At the plate, the same arguments could be made. No one will scoff at an everyday player who hits .280 with between 25 and 35 home runs, past or present. Jones was comfortably above-average at the plate every year from 2011 to 2015, and only really had a down year in 2016.
Yet the accepted analytics and data that started with the "Moneyball" Oakland Athletics and the curse-breaking Boston Red Sox of the early 2000s emphasized the ability to get on base above all else. Jones also managed to accumulate more home runs than walks three times in his prime, and was one of the freest swingers in the game. He provided his fair share of offensive production, but had a frustrating approach.
Unfortunately for Jones, the season that mattered most — last year — wasn't one anyone looking for a job would want to be evaluated on. He was worth 0.5 wins above replacement (WAR) according to FanGraphs and 0.2 according to Baseball Reference, batting .281 with 15 home runs, a .732 OPS and declining defense in center field as he turned 33 years old.
It mattered little that he was a good soldier after exercising his right to refuse a trade at the nonwaiver deadline, ceding his center field job to Cedric Mullins and handling himself like a pro when it looked as if he was being phased out entirely.
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Jones had to wait well into spring training to find a job despite the fact that he is regarded as one of the best teammates in the game, both as an example of how to work and a conduit for getting a player's best out of him. He was marvelous in the World Baseball Classic in 2017, and two years later, players who wore the USA's colors in that competition with him gush about the experience he helped create.
Jones also had to wait despite becoming a pillar in the Baltimore community, holding annual charity events to raise money for the local Boys & Girls Club. He and his wife, Audie, joined the Orioles Charitable Foundation to donate $150,000 to local charities at the end of last season.
Jones has also picked his spots to be outspoken on racial issues, serving as a spokesman of sorts as the team played through the unrest surrounding Freddie Gray's death in 2015, calling baseball a "white man's game" in addressing why black baseball players didn't protest during the national anthem the way NFL stars such as Colin Kaepernick did, and shedding light on racial abuse in 2017 in Boston.
That part of Jones' nature proved divisive, too, however unfairly. But like everything else other than simply what he can produce on a baseball field in 2019 and beyond, it’s unlikely that it affected his free agency much.
More so than younger stars such as Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, whose free agency was tinged with bizarre rationale for not signing generational talents, Jones is a symbol of where baseball is in 2019, and his free agency shows which side has more sway.
Two decades of teams using data, drafting well and taking advantage of young players on cost-controlled contracts to win championships has teams like the Orioles trying to replicate that. Especially in recent years, it has players like Jones thinking about free agency a lot differently than they would have when contracts were doled out based on the back of a player's baseball card instead of an analyst's projections.