This Bucs prospect is earning praise from pros

April 19th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Justice delos Santos’ Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Before they played for the same organization, Vince Velasquez worked with at a training facility in Southern California. When Velasquez was asked what he recalled about Jones, he didn’t hesitate to offer praise.

“The kid is a freak,” Velasquez said.

Jones’s 4.56 ERA across 46 Minor League appearances (43 starts) doesn’t immediately jump off the page, but the intrigue lies in his stuff.

The 21-year-old’s calling card is an electrifying four-seam fastball that sits in the mid-to-high 90s, a pitch that can flirt with triple digits. To complement the heater, Jones features a changeup (88-90 mph), slider (86-88 mph) and curveball (78-81 mph). With those four pitches in his bag, Jones has accumulated 254 strikeouts across 197 1/3 innings or 11.60 per nine innings.

“The kid has a lot of life on his fastball and throws it with a ton of confidence,” Velasquez said.

For Jones, the Pirates’ No. 11 prospect per MLB Pipeline, the biggest area for growth is command. In his professional career, Jones is walking 4.15 batters per nine innings. That doesn’t include the 22 batters he’s plunked as well.

Jones made strides in the walk department last season; after walking 4.64 batters per nine innings in 2021, Jones walked 3.74 batters per nine innings in 2022. Still, when looking at his body of work, Jones knows there are still steps to take.

“You’re never really satisfied with what you have,” Jones said. “You always want to get better and better as the years go on. I was okay with it, but I wasn’t satisfied.”

Earlier this year, Jones earned his first invitation to Major League Spring Training. He made only two appearances, recording a pair of scoreless innings, but enjoyed the opportunity to see how his stuff played against Major League hitters.

Jones also relished the opportunity to share a clubhouse and work alongside Major League pitchers, including one that he had always observed from afar.

“It was awesome,” Jones said. “You’re hanging around guys like Rich Hill. He watched one of my first lives over there, and I was fanboying on the mound a little bit. I grew up watching him playing for the Dodgers. It was really cool being around all those guys.”

Jones added that during bullpens, “I kind of let it loose a little bit more.”

Spring Training wasn’t the only opportunity in recent months that Jones had to work with Major League pitchers. This offseason, Jones spent time at the Chapman Baseball Compound in Irvine, California, where he worked alongside pitchers, such as Velasquez, Jack Flaherty, Lucas Giolito and Michael Lorenzen.

“Just watching what those guys do, I could do that all day,” Jones said. “Watching those guys go through their day, their workouts, their throwing program and all the stuff they do was really cool to see.”

Jones wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Velasquez marveled at the characteristics of Jones’s heater, while Flaherty noted Jones’s work ethic.

“The guy works hard,” Flaherty said. “That’s something you appreciate seeing. … You notice guys that work hard and who want to put in the work and want to take that next step in their development and what they can do. You appreciate seeing guys like that.” 

“When you have carry and rise like that, it’s impressive,” Velasquez said. “It’s something you can really utilize. All you can do is harness what’s being applied and learn how to utilize it to the best of your advantage.”

Jones, who turns 22 in August, begins this season with Double-A Altoona. In two starts, Jones has allowed three runs across 8 2/3 innings, recording nine strikeouts but six walks and one hit-by-pitch. If Jones can continue cutting down on the free bases while maintaining his phenomenal strikeout rate, he’ll pitch his way to Triple-A Indianapolis by season’s end.