BravesCenter continues its 35-part series on the top questions facing the Braves this offseason with…
23. Can Chipper Jones stay healthy?
It's funny how things can change. From 1996-2003, Jones averaged 157 games per season. But over the past two years, he's averaged only 123. That's missing close to forty games per season, and that's not what you want from your star player making upwards of $15 million dollars.
In 2004 it was his hamstring, and the Braves hoped that would be cured by getting him out of the wasteland of the outfield. And then in 2005 it was a foot injury that hampered him for most of the season. At no point over these past two seasons has Jones been 100% healthy, and even though it's unfair, since he is getting older, you wonder how he can get past the injuries.
Is he going to become a typical middle-aged (I guess 34 is middle age in baseball) player that will battle injuries for the rest of his career? Or will he rehab the foot over the offseason and somehow once again be the player that will miss only a game a month?
Jones is still a star player, as evidenced by his importance in the Atlanta lineup. No, the Braves didn't fall apart when he was gone, but when he was in there the lineup was much more dangerous. And the sad part about last season was the fact that he was really playing well in the first two months. Who knows how well he would have done if he had not been injured.
But the injuries he's had the last two years make many wonder how long Jones will be able to stay at that high level. If he continues to be injured at this rate, how valuable will he be? His expensive contract makes him basically untradeable, so the Braves could be stuck with him for three more years. Only a serious injury that would severely limit his plate appearances would put his contract in jeopardy of not vesting past 2006.
The depth the Braves have built up in the farm system make the situation at third base even more interesting. Andy Marte is arguably ready, but what can the Braves do? While Marte is an exceptional prospect, he's not going to knock a potential Hall-of-Famer out of the lineup, even with Chipper becoming more of an injury-plagued player. But having Marte around does give the Braves valuable insurance in case Jones continues to miss significant time with injuries, and as we found out last season, depth can save a team in so many ways from suffering when a major player misses playing time.
You wonder if Jones will do what many players his age do as they see the twilight of their careers ahead of them: work extremely hard to condition himself to avoid any serious injury. Many players want one last hurrah, and whether it's for one last contract or one last chance to be a significant player, they'll work hard to stay in shape so they can remain at that high level. Jones needs to do this. His talent is still there, but he's got to face the fact that he will be 34 next season, and his body, after years of playing as regularly as he has throughout his career, is not the same as it was at 24 in 1996. Injuries can happen at any time without any notice, but it does help the older players if they condition themselves enough to try and avoid any prior injuries that might pop up in the future.
Chipper Jones is still a very important part of this team, and even though his replacements are already lining up from Richmond to Rome, he should still have several more productive seasons remaining. Again, injuries are going to happen, but as a player looking at the back end of his career, Jones must do all he can do to avoid being hampered by the nagging problems that have curtailed his playing time over the last two years.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at email@example.com.
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