The lefty Aaron Judge? Untouchable in trades? Why Spencer Jones has Yankees so excited

TAMPA, Fla. -- The potential the New York Yankees see in Spencer Jones, the towering top prospect who reminds many of a certain giant outfielder, was obvious in the first and last swings he took during his time in major league camp this spring.

The first, in the Yankees' exhibition opener on Feb. 24, produced a mammoth 470-foot home run. The last, two weeks later, was an inside-out cut on a pitch darting under his hands that the left-handed slugger deposited the other way, down the left-field line. He glided into second base for a double.

Massive raw power? Check. Elite speed? Check. Bat-to-ball skills? Improving.

"He's such a presence and such a dynamic athlete," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after Jones slashed that double. "And in a lot of ways he's just kind of scratching the surface on his baseball career."

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That feeling permeates the organization, from the clubhouse to the owner's suite. The 6-foot-6 Jones is an unusual blend of power, size and speed the team envisions clubbing home runs over the short porch at Yankee Stadium and stealing bases deep into October. The Yankees firmly believe the 22-year-old is a future star. It's why he is still in the organization.

The Yankees could have made Jones the centerpiece in a major trade in recent months -- even just this week -- to improve a roster in win-now mode for the 2024 season. But team brass is so convinced of Jones' talents that he has been deemed virtually untouchable.

In December, the Yankees acquired Juan Soto from the San Diego Padres without including Jones in the package. Last month, the Milwaukee Brewers sent former Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes to division rival Baltimore Orioles after the Yankees reportedly refused to include Jones in a deal.

This week, despite news that reigning American League Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole would miss at least the start of the season with an elbow injury, the Yankees refused to part with Jones in a trade for Dylan Cease. The Chicago White Sox instead shipped Cease to the Padres on Wednesday.

Starting pitching remains the Yankees' biggest concern heading into Opening Day. Moving Jones, who isn't expected to contribute to the big league team this season, could have helped address it. The Yankees wouldn't budge.

"It's cool to be held in that sense, or that regard," Jones said. "Like my buddies from back home that are big baseball fans, they'll send me all the stuff because I'm not seeing it."

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The Yankees re-assigned Jones to minor league camp earlier this month, and he is expected to begin the season in Double-A. He's on the Yankees' Spring Breakout roster for an all-prospects showcase on Saturday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

But the Yankees project him in the Bronx by 2025, stationed in center field for years to come. That would require him living up to the hype.

Jones batted .267 with 16 home runs and 43 steals in 117 games -- including 101 starts in center field -- between High-A and Double-A in his first full professional season. He struck out 155 times, and the 16 home runs were a bit underwhelming for someone with his power. But the performance still raised expectations.

ESPN's Kiley McDaniel recently listed Jones as baseball's 56th-best prospect. Last month, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner named Jones as one of three prospects, along with pitchers Will Warren and Chase Hampton, he is "hesitant to give up."

"Plus run and power on a tremendous frame," one rival scout said. "But, with that big frame and strength, comes some overall stiffness. The swing is naturally on the longer side, but he does have enough bat speed to give him a chance."

The similarities between Jones and Aaron Judge are hard to ignore. There's the abnormal height for baseball players -- Judge is 6-7, just an inch taller than Jones. Both, despite their size, can comfortably patrol center field. Both have huge power. Both were Yankees first-round picks out of college.

There are differences. For one, Jones both throws and hits left-handed. Secondly, he boasts elite speed. Judge noted that Jones was up there with shortstop Anthony Volpe as the fastest Yankees in camp.

Of course, Judge has grown into one of baseball's most productive power hitters in recent history, while Jones is still trying to turn his tools into consistent production.

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"I know this sounds hyperbolic, but Jones has louder tools than Judge," another rival scout said. "Jones is just a freak of nature."

Then there's the fact that Jones, unlike Judge, is seen by the Yankees as an everyday center fielder from Day 1 as a major leaguer. That alone would be a feat, considering the thin history of exceptionally tall guys at that position.

Only 11 players 6-6 or taller have ever played the position in the major leagues. Judge, the Yankees' center fielder this season, just so happens to be one of them.

"I think it's unfair for him to be compared to anybody because he's so unique," Judge said. "He's such a different hitter than me. I think he's a different athlete than me. Like he's exceptional, man. I wish I had that speed."

Jones focused on hitting as a star at La Costa Canyon High School outside San Diego. Then, near the end of his high school career, he became a two-way player. In six months, he said, his fastball jumped from 86 to 94 mph. A 6-6 high school southpaw throwing 94 mph? Scouts salivated.

"We'd have scout meetings my senior year of high school and they would all talk to me as if I was a pitcher," Jones said. "And I honestly didn't like that that much. Because I was like pitching was one thing I did, but I really liked to hit."

Spencer's ascent hit a snag when he fractured his elbow throwing a curveball during a game in his senior year. Major league clubs, as a result, weren't willing to meet his bonus price. He sank all the way to the 31st round in the 2019 MLB draft, where he was selected by the Los Angeles Angels. Instead, he went to Vanderbilt.

He was given three gloves when he arrived in Nashville -- one for pitching and one for the outfield, plus a first baseman's mitt. He began as a first baseman in 2020, but he couldn't make basic throws. He had the yips.

"I just never rehabbed [my arm] right," Jones said. "It was a simple rehab, there was just some miscommunication."

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COVID shortened the 2020 season, which allowed Jones to properly rehab the arm. He resumed pitching that summer but tore his ulnar collateral ligament and underwent Tommy John surgery. That was it for him on the mound.

"I was always more of a thrower than I was a pitcher," Jones said. "But it was kind of an identity crisis. I didn't know what I was going to be better at. After the UCL, it was like, 'All right, let's put all our eggs in the hitting basket. We're not going to pitch anymore.'"

After DHing his sophomore season, he asked to move to the outfield as a junior to, as he put it, "lengthen out my arm again." Once they saw him there, he stayed -- and took off.

Jones hit .370 with 12 home runs, 14 steals and a 1.103 OPS in 61 games as Vanderbilt's everyday right fielder. It was his first full healthy season focused solely on hitting since his junior year of high school. The breakout prompted the Yankees to select him with the 25th pick in the 2022 MLB draft and pay him a $2,880,800 bonus.

Less than two years later, Jones was mashing baseballs and turning heads in big league camp.

"Impressive was the first word that comes to mind," Yankees hitting coach James Rowson said.

It took one swing for Jones to show why the hoopla surrounding him exists. Baseballs smashed 470 feet are rare. Center fielders that tall -- and fast -- are rarer. The Yankees are betting this is just the beginning.

"I feel I'm still developing as a hitter," Jones said. "There's still a million things I can learn. I'm not set in my ways. I'm only 22 years old."


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