Jon Jay did not have a big power bat, blinding speed, a laser arm or any of the flashy tools we usually look for in an outfielder. What Jon Jay had were a particular set of skills, skills he acquired over a long career, skills which made him a nightmare for pundits to come to any consensus on.
The Cardinals drafted Jay with their 4th pick of the 2006 draft, 76th overall. He debuted on Baseball America's list as the Cardinals 5th rated prospect the following year, then slipped to 11th, 12th and finally 13th, despite rising level-by-level through the minors each season.
As Jay made his way up the Cardinals system, he was lapped by 2007 1st round pick Colby Rasmus. In fact, Rasmus was already in his 2nd season as the Cardinals primary center fielder when Jay made his major league debut in late April, 2010.
In many ways, Jay was the anti-Rasmus. Rasmus was a toolsy prospect with a high pedigree. Rasmus (and his father) rankled Cardinals officials, including Emperor La Russa. Rasmus - despite his prodigious tools - did not hit for a high batting average. Jon Jay was a guy few expected to be much more than a 4th or 5th outfielder, he got along with absolutely everybody, and you could just about set your watch by his .300 batting average.
So when the Cardinals dealt Rasmus in July of 2011 and made Jay the starting center fielder, along with it came a certain "Little Engine that could" narrative. Jay was the Tortoise to Rasmus' Hair.
That same narrative would play out in the wake of the Cardinals acquiring Peter Bourjos to ostensibly replace Jay as the starting center fielder before the 2014 season. Through guile and determination, as the story goes, Jay would reclaim his rightful role as the starter. In fact, he so earned the trust of the front office, the Cardinals offered him a two-year contract, buying out his final two years of arbitration.
But while Jon Jay had a plus-plus narrative, his on-the-field skills were a little more limited. Contact was always his strongest tool, but as his slugging percentage declined every season, making that contact less-and-less valuable. His base-running graded out as generally sub-par. His defensive metrics were volatile as well. He committed few errors, but his arm was poor, and measurements of his range were sometimes good and sometimes not-so-good.
One thing, however, was never in dispute: Jon Jay could lean-in and take a pitch in the ass like nobody in the game.
It's a little funny that a player like Jay could engender the kind of animus he did by the end of his tenure in St. Louis. Here was a home-grown player of fairly low pedigree, who fought his way into a prominent role for six seasons, including a World Series winner, and who was constantly cited by teammates as being one of the kindest guys in the clubhouse.
Yet Jay's ascension and retention of the starting center fielder job made him enemies in both the #TeamColby and #TeamBourjos camps. The narrative around him - while not unearned - was also the type that tends to bring out the very worst in sportscaster cliches, which can grate on the nerves of fans. And for a player like Jay, whose game is so one-dimensional, when that skill recedes the way that it did in 2015, there's little left to cushion the plummet.
Feelings toward Jay may have been mixed at times during his tenure with the Cardinals, but if you'd have told any of us in 2006 that he would do what he has done, we would be very happy with the results.