Jones proving his worth at camp
Left-handed prospect feels healthy, ready to tackle big leaguers
VIERA, Fla. -- Minutes after watching the Nationals lose to the Tigers, 10-2, on Thursday afternoon in Lakeland, Fla., manager Manny Acta said he saw at least one positive in the game. He was pleased that left-hander Justin Jones didn't give up a run in 1 2/3 innings and was able to hold runners.
Jones, who was acquired from the Twins in the Minor League Rule 5 Draft in 2006, has been a starter during his seven years in professional baseball, but the Nationals are working him out of the bullpen. The team is looking for relievers to help fill the void left by the departures of Luis Ayala, Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch.
Jones doesn't care what his role is on the team. It's obvious he is grateful to be in professional baseball.
"I'm coming to camp in shape and healthy, so I'm excited in that sense," Jones said. "I'm just here to have an opportunity to pitch in front of the big league staff and the rest of the coaches. I'm not in a position to say that I'm looking for a spot. I'm excited to be here, learn and share the field with the big league players."
A year ago, Jones wasn't sure if he would get a chance to work with big league players in Spring Training. On Dec. 5, 2007, Washington decided to give Jones his unconditional release because he suffered a serious knee injury while playing basketball. The Nationals didn't want to have an injured player on the 40-man roster.
The news was a huge blow to Jones, because he was coming off one of his best seasons in the Minor Leagues, going a combined 11-8 with a 3.72 ERA with Class A Hagerstown and Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg.
After Jones was released, however, Washington expressed interest and signed him to a Minor League deal a few days later, even though the club expected him to miss the entire 2008 season because of his knee injury.
"I jeopardized myself as far as having a job," Jones said. "I was lucky to be signed back, and I wanted to prove to them that I made a mistake and it wouldn't happen again. Part of proving it was to get as healthy as I could as quick as I could, and compete at the highest level before [the 2008 season ended]."
Jones did not miss the entire '08 season. He worked hard rehabbing his knee in Virginia Beach, Va., his hometown, and at the Nationals' Minor League complex. By the time the season ended, Jones had logged 86 innings and had a 4.30 ERA with three Minor League teams.
Jones' hard work didn't surprise teammate Ryan Zimmerman. The two players have known each other since they were in elementary school in Virginia Beach.
"He learned from his mistakess," Zimmerman said. "He has fought his way back and he looks really good."
Jones' perseverance helped him get an invite to big league camp and he vows not to take baseball for granted again.
"I'm healthy," Jones said. "My legs feel good, my arm feels good and my head is in the right spot. I couldn't ask for a better organization to be with right now. The opportunities are endless, and I think that upper-level management did a great job in getting some young players in here with a lot of energy. I think it's the Washington Nationals' time to compete in the next few years."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.