Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 1/6/12
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In the weekly Wednesday chat, one of the popular subjects was the Braves pursuit of Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones. According to reports, Atlanta has been trying to land Jones for the better part of a few months, using Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado as the bait, while the Orioles demand a lot more in return for their center fielder. A segment of Braves fans seem to be offended by the asking price for Jones, believing that the Orioles demands for a guy with a .319 OBP is unwarranted.

But, here’s the thing with trading for a guy like Adam Jones – you aren’t paying for what he has been, you’re paying for what he could be.

The 2008-2011 version of Adam Jones has been a slightly above average player, not the star he was projected to be as a prospect. As has been noted by Atlanta fans many times, his low on base percentage has held him back from being an offensive force, and he’s shown few signs of improving his plate discipline to date. Additionally, UZR hasn’t exactly loved his defense in center field, so he’s topped out at +2.9 WAR in his best season to date.

If that’s all Adam Jones was, then Braves fans would be right that Baltimore was asking too much for his final two years of team control. However, the Orioles see potential for significant improvement from their center fielder, and history backs up their point of view.

To show this general skillset’s potential, I grabbed a list of all player seasons from the last 10 years where the hitter was 25 or younger, swung at 50% or more of the pitches they were thrown, and posted an ISO of at least .150 (to eliminate the middle infielders and catchers who are simply in the sport for their glovework). This group is essentially a collection of athletic players who got to the show based on their physical skills, but showed a significant lack of polish early in their career.

Including Jones, there were 30 names on the list. Two of the players on the list were rookies last year (Mark Trumbo and Freddie Freeman) and three more are still about the same age as Jones (Pablo Sandoval, Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch) so they don’t really help us understand how players perform in the future after showing this kind of skillset early in their career. So, throwing them out, that leaves us with 24 hitters with roughly comparable offensive skillsets. Here’s how they break down.

Future stars:

Miguel Cabrera
Ryan Braun
Robinson Cano
Adrian Beltre
Carlos Gonzalez
Matt Kemp
Brandon Phillips
Carl Crawford
Matt Holliday

Quality Regulars:

Aramis Ramirez
Justin Morneau
Vernon Wells
Corey Hart
Hunter Pence

Decent Role Players:

Juan Uribe
Jeff Francoeur
Jay Gibbons
Joe Crede

Busts:

Jorge Cantu
Mike Jacobs
Angel Berroa
Jose Lopez
Corey Patterson
Kevin Kouzmanoff

Of the 24, 14 developed into All-Star caliber players, producing far more value than they had shown during their raw, early career performances. It’s probably fair to say that Jones isn’t likely to turn into a Miguel Cabrera or a Ryan Braun, as they’re not really great comparisons for his overall package of skills, but it is worth noting that both of them were aggressive hitters who chased a lot of pitches early in their careers. Likewise, while Matt Holliday might not strike you as a similar player to Jones, the development of his walk rate over the years shows how aggressive young hitters don’t necessarily remain aggressive as they age.

Of the guys who do fit a more similar profile to Jones in terms of athletic ability and undisciplined approach at the plate at a young age – the best overall comparisons for Jones – we see Cano, Crawford, Beltre, Gonzalez, Kemp, Phillips, Ramirez, Wells, Hart, Pence, Francoeur, and Patterson. You’ll note a really high success rate among those players, with only the latter two having failed to develop into fairly consistent quality regulars.

Guys who become regulars in their early-20s due to their athleticism often lag behind when getting judged by their on base percentage. However, their broad base of skills allow them to be useful players while still developing, and with more experience, their overall performances improve, sometimes dramatically.

When the Orioles look at Adam Jones, they’re not looking at a +2 to +3 win guy with a low OBP who needs work judging balls off the bat – they’re looking at a guy with the potential to become a premium player at an up-the-middle position. And if they’re going to give up that potential, they’re going to need to get some serious upside in return.

Unfortunately for the Braves, Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado aren’t exactly upside plays. They’re both useful pieces who could help a contender by filling in a gap here or there, but neither offer the hope of becoming much more than what they already are. They’re finished products, or something close to it at least. Jones is an untapped well whose performances up to this point show a glimmer of what he could become if he continues to develop.

Given the Orioles present circumstances, that’s exactly the kind of player they need. Two useful players with limited potential aren’t going to make them winners. They need stars to build around, and while Jones isn’t one yet, he very well could become one. If the Orioles are going to part with not only his present value but the hope of what he could become, a potential buyer will need to compensate them for surrendering that unrealized potential.

You can’t judge Adam Jones’ value to the Orioles by what he’s been to date. His value is based on what he could be, and what he could be is worth a lot more than Martin Prado and Jair Jurrjens.

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