Andruw Jones has put together a Hall of Fame caliber career his first ten seasons with the Braves. Still, AJC columnist David O’Brien wonders whether this will be his last with the team.
He’s widely regarded as the top defensive center fielder in a generation and among the best of all time. He has hit more home runs before age 30 than all but seven players. And he wants to stay with the Braves.
If that were all there was to it, re-signing Andruw Jones would seem a no-brainer. But mix in other factors, like an aging body, pending free agency, agent Scott Boras and a projected $80 million team payroll, and the situation gets complicated.
That’s why Jones, who’s under contract through the 2007 season, is potentially the team’s biggest domino that could fall via trade this offseason, setting in motion other moves as the Braves attempt to regroup after a disappointing season that ended their run of 14 consecutive division titles.
They will decide in coming months â€” perhaps sooner â€” whether they can afford to re-sign Jones, whose salary could climb above $15 million annually and account for a fifth of the projected team payroll. He’s scheduled to make $13.5 million next season. “With every player who becomes a free agent or a potential free agent,” Braves general manager John Schuerholz said, “you try to make your best judgment as to how long a guy can continue to perform at his optimum level and how long you can count on that productivity. “He plays hard. He’s a sensational player. He does a great job for us.”
Would the Braves trade a potential Hall of Fame candidate before he turns 30? Or spurn possible offers from Boston and others this winter, and start next season with Jones, with or without a contract extension?
If they don’t sign him to an extension and they’re in a pennant race next summer, it would be nearly impossible to justify trading Jones before the non-waiver deadline at the end of July. Jones could end up signing with another team after next season, and the Braves would get only compensatory draft picks.
It’s an unusual situation with a unique player.
He hit his 40th home run of the season Tuesday, after leading the majors with a career-high 51 in 2005 when he was the MVP runner-up. He’s the first Braves player since Hank Aaron to have back-to-back 40-homer seasons, and the only one since the team moved to Atlanta. He has 341 homers and needs only two more before his birthday April 23 to pass Aaron and Mel Ott for the most homers before age 30. He also has 127 RBIs, after leading the National League with 128 in 2005. At the end of this season, he will have averaged more than 35 homers for a nine-year span while winning a Gold Glove every season.
“He’s in a class with some of the greatest of all time,” Braves pitcher John Smoltz said. “He shows such brilliance and does it with such ease, and when he’s no longer in center field, you’re going to see a remarkable difference. It’s not going to be easy to replace him. It’d be like replacing Mariano Rivera [as Yankees closer].”
Jones insists he would like to play 10 more seasons and remain a center fielder his entire career, like Willie Mays. “But if I have to DH or play first base someday, we’ll see,” he said.
If he plays that long, or anywhere near that long, his statistics could be mind-numbing, and the Braves would be reminded frequently of what they traded away.
Indeed they would. The Braves have traded away a lot of great players that came up through their farm system, notably David Justice and Rafael Furcal, both Rookie of the Year winners and let Tom Glavine and others get away in free agency.
It’s almost inconceivable, though, that they’d let Jones, the best of the lot, go. While he’s lost a step in the outfield, he’s just now coming into his prime as a hitter. He’s no longer a strikeout waiting to happen. He’s had his two best offensive seasons the last two years. You simply don’t let someone like that get away.
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