KC Royals: Without fanfare, Travis Jones looks for a spot

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

Overshadowed by a first-round draft pick, a 29th-round choice of the KC Royals is trying to make it to the major leagues.

Nick Pratto and Travis Jones share two characteristics–they were both drafted by the KC Royals in the 2017 amateur draft and are now minor league first basemen.

Beyond that, they are studies in baseball contrasts.

Pratto is well-known. KC’s first-round pick in 2017, the 14th player selected overall, Pratto is no doubt a millionaire, having signed for a reported $3.45 million less than a week after the draft. He’s ranked the 12th best Royals’ prospect by mlb.com; last year, he was 10th. The 21-year old bats and throws left, is 6-1 and weighs 195. The best of his three minor league seasons was 2018–he hit .280 with 14 home runs and 62 RBIs and stole 22 bases in 127 games at Class A Lexington. He hit .247 in Rookie ball after the ’17 draft but .191 in High A last season.

Jones, on the other hand, isn’t well-known. The Royals took him in the 29th round, 856 picks after choosing Pratto. The 24-year old isn’t among mlb.com’s top KC prospects this season, and wasn’t last year. Unlike Pratto, Jones throws right, bats right. At 6-4 and 210, he’s bigger than Pratto. Pratto’s hit under .200 for a full season, but Jones hasn’t–in fact, Jones’ best average was a combined .291 in A and High A, 11 points higher than Pratto’s .280 in A. And while Pratto was batting below Mendoza in High A last year, Jones hit .262 at AA Northwest Arkansas.

Pratto signed right out of high school while Jones signed after playing college ball for three years at Texas.

Pratto has been heralded as the KC Royals’ first baseman of the future (a lofty status considering the continuing uncertainty surrounding that position); not many speak often of Jones making it to Kaufmann Stadium.

But Jones was in the Royals’ major league camp when baseball stopped. Pratto wasn’t.

Jones wasn’t in camp to provide filler for split-squad contests–of the eight games he played, only two involved split squads. And if the club wasn’t interested in seeing what he could do, he wouldn’t have been taking playing time away from first base competitors Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom.

Unfortunately, Jones’ time at the plate wasn’t well-spent. He struck out six times in eight at-bats, didn’t get a hit and walked once. (The performance, though concerning, isn’t shocking for a ballplayer getting his first taste of big league camp, especially one who’s never before seen even AAA pitching).

Something, however, moved the Royals to take a close spring look at Jones. Perhaps they consider him a viable candidate for Omaha, where there is no clear choice to play first base; maybe they have some thought of someday bringing him to Kansas City, although his conspicuous lack of power–he’s averaging five homers a season–is a concern.

It’s more likely the club likes his versatility. The Royals signed weak-hitting Matt Reynolds to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training, but his .211 Cactus League hitting and .223 major league career average may ultimately trump the fact he’s a jack-of-all-defensive-trades. Jones has played both corner infield spots and right and left fields and demonstrated he can handle the bat, at least through AA ball. And he’s five years younger than Reynolds.

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Jones is currently the only first baseman on Northwest Arkansas’ roster. He reached AA for the first time last season but stints on the Injured List and two rehab assignments to Rookie ball limited him to 59 games, all at first. He complemented his .262 average with 16 stolen bases, his highest number of steals since swiping 20 in 23 tries (and hitting .335) at Idaho Falls after the 2017 draft.

His 2018 was good–Jones hit .285 and stole 14 bases at Class A Lexington, and .298 with 17 steals at High A Wilmington. Unlike Pratto, Jones hasn’t disappointed offensively.

Where Jones plays this season won’t be determined until baseball resumes. Even with expanded big league rosters, and his versatility, Northwest Arkansas or Omaha are far, far more likely destinations than Kansas City. Pratto’s .191 at Wilmington makes his return there realistic (Eric Hosmer required two stops at High A), but if the KC Royals decide to move him up to AA ball, Jones is probably headed for Omaha.

Pratto and Jones have been playing professionally for the same organization for the same three years. Jones has been better, but it’s Pratto who remains in the limelight, lauded as a top prospect and by some as the long-awaited permanent successor to Eric Hosmer. Perhaps maturing in the game–he’s three years younger than Jones and didn’t play college ball–will improve Pratto and move him past Jones.

Meanwhile, there in the shadows, away from the spotlight ever trained on Pratto, Travis Jones quietly plugs away.

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This will be an important season for Travis Jones. Nick Pratto may overtake him on the road to Kansas City, but Jones may get there anyway.