When Cincinnati announced the signing of Ryan Ludwick, the outfield going into 2012 looked pretty well set. Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs would be returning as the great, young players they are, and Chris Heisey was pretty certain to make the roster with a strong audition last season.
Cincinnati could stand pat with four outfielders and use Todd Frazier or recent acquisition Wilson Valdez as fifth outfielders on top of possible backup infield duties. However, the signings of both Daryl Jones and Willie Harris seem to indicate that general manager Walt Jocketty and manager Dusty Baker are still looking for a fifth outfielder.
Dave Sappelt seemed to have an inside track to a roster spot going into the offseason, but Cincinnati chose instead to send him to the Chicago Cubs as a part of the deal for reliever Sean Marshall. This left the organization with few possibilities, as the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster is minor leaguer Denis Phipps.
Daryl Jones is a former third-round pick of St. Louis back in 2005. He was drafted out of high school as a player in the mold of Drew Stubbs—an athletic player with some power at the plate. He was seen as having a good, but not fantastic, arm and raw hitting abilities that could develop into a dangerous mix of power and average.
Over the six-plus seasons Jones spent in the Cardinals farm system, he was ranked among their best prospects. However, he consistently underperformed and failed to live up to his potential.
The organization hoped his speed would translate into range and fielding ability in the outfield coupled with base-stealing ability. Indeed, Jones can play all three outfield positions decently, although he is a bit weak in center; in the minors his fielding percentage is .959 in center field.
He has had double-digit steals in every season other than 2008 and 2011, with a 67 percent success rate. His strikeout rate is a bit high and Jones never really developed much power (he has only one season of double-digit home runs), but his OPS has been over .750 for most seasons, especially in recent years.
Jones could use work on contact, as his career minor league batting average is .257, but where he lacks in average he makes up for in getting on base; his career OBP is an above-average .348.
Jones showed progression in 2011, finally making the jump to AAA in the Cardinals organization. His fielding percentage jumped to .989, although he played noticeably better in left field in comparison to center field. His slash was .250/.379/.400 with decreased strikeout numbers from previous seasons.
Following the season, he elected free agency to see if he could get a shot at the majors with another team, and Cincinnati saw some potential in him. Although he signed a minor league contract, he does have an invite to spring training and Cincinnati has a noticeable lack of outfielders on the 40-man roster.
Jones is still very young for having such a long minor league career, as he will turn 25 during the 2012 season. If Cincinnati chooses to keep him off the active roster, there is a decent chance he could start the season at Triple A Louisville as organizational depth.
Jones is a left-handed batter and could very well end up being one of two lefty bench players along with Juan Francisco. He would also be the only lefty outfielder other than Bruce. This could potentially give Jones an edge on competition.
In the end, it could come down to how Jones auditions in spring training compared to guys like Harris and Frazier. Since Chris Heisey can play center field well enough to sub for Stubbs on off days, Cincinnati is really looking for a guy who can play the corners well enough for its taste. Jones could very well end up being the guy the Reds like the most.