Chipper Jones walking back, not away
Six-time All-Star recovering from ACL injury, ready to set foot back in changed NL East
Chipper Jones was sitting 25 feet up a tree hunting deer in Iowa when he received a text from Atlanta general manager Frank Wren telling him the Braves were trading for Dan Uggla. There's nothing like the arrival of an All-Star second baseman with a 30-homer, 90-RBI per year pedigree to brighten a No. 3 hole hitter's mood on a mid-November day in the heartland.
Last week, Jones was at his ranch in Texas when his mother texted to inform him that the Philadelphia Phillies had just signed pitcher Cliff Lee to a five-year, guaranteed $120 million contract. Through the years, Jones has heard other rotations compared to Atlanta's Greg Maddux-John Smoltz-Tom Glavine-Steve Avery foursome from the early 1990s, but this is the first group that he thinks legitimately stacks up with that killer rotation.
"I guess Philly has squelched any talk that they're coming back to the pack," Jones said by phone Tuesday. "We know it's going to be tough. We know there are going to be no off days, and they're going to have their rotation lined up every time we face them. But every series, every game against the Phillies has always been like a playoff series for us. It's a 'You-better-show-up-or-you're-gonna-get-your brains beat in' type of scenario. That's no different now."
Throw in the Washington Nationals' seven-year, $126 million investment in outfielder Jayson Werth and a flurry of smaller moves by the Florida Marlins, and the National League East has had a chaotic, Black Friday-at-Bloomingdale's look about it all winter. A 38-year-old veteran could get overwhelmed just monitoring the transactions.
Jones, a six-time All-Star in the twilight phase of his career, is busy enough just sweating, grunting and dragging his body through another day. It all stems back to Aug. 10, when he leaped in the air while making a fine defensive play on a Hunter Pence ground ball, landed awkwardly and tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee. Before Dr. Marvin Royster even had a chance to assess the damage, Jones appeared at a news conference and revealed his plans to come back and play an 18th season.
Jones had the same knee operated on by the same surgeon in 1994. The estimated recovery time then was 12 months; now it's a mere six months because of advances in arthroscopic surgery. But Jones is also 16 years older and less resilient now, and he knows the true test won't come until he's on the field and forced to charge balls and make abrupt cuts when it really counts.
Come January, Jones will head to his hitting facility in the Atlanta suburb of Suwanee and begin taking batting practice with Brian McCann, Mark DeRosa, Jeff Francoeur, Andruw Jones and his other winter workout buddies. At the moment, he's focused on lifting weights at the gym and running the hills in his subdivision.
"I actually have a funny story about that," Jones said. "I'm so out of shape, one of my neighbors caught me dry-heaving on his lawn. We had a nice little chuckle out of it. I grabbed his phone to make sure he didn't take any video and people would see it on YouTube."
It's been one thing after another for Jones. In May, he was plodding along in the .220s and looked perilously close to the end. Brian Jordan, a member of Atlanta's broadcasting crew, did a radio interview and questioned Jones' commitment to physical conditioning. Jordan subsequently apologized to Jones, and the former Braves teammates patched up their differences.
Jones eventually picked up the pace and began hitting the ball with authority after the All-Star break. He raised his batting average to .265 and was slugging at an .833 clip in August when his season ended at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
The knee injury forced Jones to play spectator during the farewell tour for Bobby Cox, the only big league manager he had ever known. Then Jones' sense of disappointment was compounded when he had to sit and watch the Braves bow out against San Francisco in the National League Division Series. Atlanta's three losses came by scores of 1-0, 3-2 and 3-2.
"I'm a realist," Jones said. "I know when you play hard for 18 years, sometimes your body isn't going to allow you to go out there. But I really feel bad I couldn't help send Bobby off the way we thought he should have gone out. We lost three one-run games to the eventual World Series champions. Being the egomaniacal idiot I am, I like to think I could have had a positive impact on one of those games."
If Jones retired today, he would have a strong case for the Hall of Fame. With 436 career home runs, he ranks third among switch-hitters behind Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray. Jones has a career .405 on base percentage, and he's the only switch-hitter with more than 300 home runs and a .300 career batting average.
He fares just as well with the trendier metrics. Jones ranks 36th among position players with a career Wins Above Replacement rating of 80. Ken Griffey Jr., Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench are just a few of the luminaries who rank behind Jones in WAR, which factors in a player's hitting, fielding, baserunning and position and determines how many extra wins he provides when compared to a baseline "replacement-level" alternative.
What kind of production can the Braves expect from Jones in 2011? An American League scout said the team should be happy if Jones can hit .280 with 15 homers and 75 RBIs, if only because aging players and leg injuries are a bad combination. Jones has appeared in 140 or more games only once since 2003, so the Braves are accustomed to holding their breath when he charges a ground ball or busts it down the line.
Whatever the numbers turn out to be, the Braves derive a certain comfort from seeing Jones in the middle of the order. An 80 percent-capacity Chipper is infinitely better than none.
"He's not the Chipper Jones who was the MVP in 1999," Wren said. "We know that. He knows that. But he also means a lot to our lineup. You have a hitter with the credentials and the ability that pitchers can't ignore his spot in the lineup. Even when Chipper is struggling, they have to be careful with him."
Jones will return to a new manager, Fredi Gonzalez, and a new hitting coach, Larry Parrish. Craig Kimbrel takes over for Billy Wagner as Atlanta's closer in 2011, and Wren has fortified the bullpen with the addition of veterans Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill. Rookie Freddie Freeman takes over at first base, Jason Heyward hopes to build on his impressive rookie year, and Jones and Uggla will see what kind of synergy they can develop in the middle of the order.
"I'm looking forward to having that big right-handed bat behind me," Jones said. "He's going to be my bodyguard in the lineup."
Five weeks ago, Chipper Jones climbed down from his tree stand, surveyed the landscape and saw a new season coming into focus. Now it's time to start hitting.