Jones happy to be productive member in Bucs' lineup

Jones happy to be productive member in Bucs' lineup

Jones happy to be productive member in Bucs' lineup
When Garrett Jones signed with Pittsburgh as a Minor League free agent prior to the 2009 season, he quickly realized there were talented players in the Pirates' organization who would soon be making an impact at the Major League level.

His teammates at Triple-A Indianapolis during the first half of that season included Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. These days, those two players -- along with Jones and Pedro Alvarez -- are the primary run producers for a Pittsburgh team that remains in contention for a National League playoff spot.

"You knew those guys had some serious potential to be great ballplayers. You could see it," Jones said. "You knew that something special was coming up, and just to be with these guys -- to play with them, to watch them develop and root for them -- it makes what's going on right now that much more special."

After the first three days of September, Jones -- who has probably been the Pirates' most productive hitter over the past month or so -- was batting .291 with 23 homers (a new career high) and 73 RBIs. Meanwhile, Alvarez had a team-high 27 homers to go along with 71 RBIs, and Walker collected 14 homers and 69 RBIs before being sidelined with a back problem.

But no Pittsburgh player has posted more impressive statistics this year than McCutchen. Through Monday, the All-Star center fielder and NL MVP Award candidate was in hot pursuit of the batting title, with a .341 mark. He also had 24 homers and 80 RBIs, and was leading the league in hits (168) and runs scored (91). But none of that surprised Jones.

"I played against him too in the Minor Leagues when I was with the Twins, and it was like, 'Man, this kid can really do it all,'" Jones said. "Just seeing how much he improved and how much of a step he would take each year was incredible. You knew it was just a matter of time before he would get to where he is now.

"He's a prime-time superstar putting up big numbers. He's the No. 1 hitter on our team, and there have been stretches where he's absolutely carried our offense."

Walker (2004), McCutchen ('05) and Alvarez ('08) were all drafted in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft by Pittsburgh, and each of them seemed to be destined for the Major Leagues from the moment they joined the organization. Jones, however, took a much different path to get to where he is now.

The Braves selected Jones in the 14th round of the Draft in '99, and released him three years later. Jones found a home with the Minnesota organization, but wound up spending 10-plus seasons in the Minor Leagues -- including four straight years with Triple-A Rochester. Before joining the Pirates, his only previous big league experience was a 31-game stint with Minnesota in '07. But when Jones signed with Pittsburgh, his career really took off.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound left-handed slugger batted .307 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs in 72 games with Triple-A Indianapolis in '09 before joining the Pirates on July 1. The native of Harvey, Ill., wound up belting 10 home runs that month to lead the Majors in that category. Jones was named the NL Rookie of the Month, and he's been a big leaguer ever since then.

Jones continues to split time between first base and right field for the Pirates, but he doesn't much care which spot he's asked to play. He just wants to be in manager Clint Hurdle's lineup and have a chance to do some damage with his powerful bat.

"It's something I've become accustomed to, being prepared to play both positions," Jones said. "You have to work at both positions equally and stay sharp, because you never know where Clint is going to want you, because we have a lot of guys on our team that can play a bunch of positions. We're all up here trying to win, and we all have each other's backs."

Jones said his manager is adept at working with the lineup and taking advantage of the Pirates' depth, which also has a positive effect on his players' individual growth.

"It's a long season, and funks are going to happen," Jones said. "I think Clint is good at spotting that and giving a guy a day or two off to kind of clear his head or work on something. At the Major League level, we're playing to win every game, and if the other guy is better than you, or hitting better than you, he deserves to be in there. Then you sit back and say, 'When I get my chance, I need to show that I belong in there and that I can help the team win.'

"This is a game you constantly have to work at and continue to get better at. You compete against other teams obviously, but there's friendly competition on your own team too. And that's a good thing. It's something that makes everybody better."

Jim Lachimia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.