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Andruw's prime

Atlanta outfielder Jones wants to be a Brave for life, but still expecting huge salary increase after this season

March 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

KISSIMMEE, FLA. — Andruw Jones shuffles through the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse, full of bravado and bluster, the voice rising as he switches easily from English to Spanish to rant about some perceived slight during batting practice.

Not to worry.

It's just Andruw being Andruw.

"Hit in another group tomorrow," coach Chino Cadahia interjects tersely, cutting off his star player.

Jones rolls his eyes but seems appeased.

This guy is good -- and he knows it. From the barely open eyelids to the mischievous grin to the Louis Vuitton man-bag that hangs over his shoulder once he's out of uniform, Jones is one of those people who simply oozes confidence.

Why wouldn't he?

With nine straight Gold Gloves on his mantle, Jones is one of the best defensive outfielders ever to play the game. He's not too shabby at the plate either, putting up 92 homers and 257 runs batted in over the last two seasons.

And, get this, he's still more than a month away from his 30th birthday.

While Jones has been around the majors for more than a decade, it's possible he's just entering his prime. His timing couldn't be more impeccable, either, considering the boom market that has again taken baseball salaries to astronomical heights.

"I don't know if he'll have 10 more great years," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said, "but he'll certainly have five more. Easy."

Jones, who's making $14 million in the final year of his contract, is about to strike gold for the second time in his career. If Gary Matthews Jr. is worth $10 million a year, what should Jones' asking price be?

Twenty million per season? Twenty-five?

"Whatever happens, happens," Jones said with typical nonchalance. "I'm under contract to the Braves right now. Hopefully by the end of the season, we'll accomplish something that lets me stay here. I want to be a Brave for life."

Don't count on it. The Braves have been slashing payroll the last few seasons and are going through an ownership change. Unless there's a drastic change in philosophy, it's hard to see how Atlanta will be able to accommodate such a monstrous salary and still have enough left over to fill out a competitive roster.

Jones got a six-year deal worth $75 million the last time around. The next contract will make that one look like peanuts.

If this does indeed turn out to be Jones' farewell season with the Braves, maybe he'll finally get the sort of appreciation he deserves. He's been dogged by unreasonable expectations ever since he was that 19-year-old phenom, coming up to the majors to smack two homers in his very first World Series game -- at Yankee Stadium, no less.

"I think Andruw is an easy pick for Cooperstown," Cox said. "You know he's going to win five or six more Gold Gloves. He'll probably win at least 15 in a row. He'll probably average 30 homers and 100 RBIs the rest of his career. Where will that put him?"

Say Jones plays another 10 years and fulfills Cox's offensive prognostication. That would push him past 600 homers and 2,000 RBIs -- Hall of Fame numbers, to be sure, before the stellar defense is even factored in.

And make no mistake: No one plays defense quite the way Andruw Jones does.

His instincts are unmatched, allowing him to take a step or two in the right direction before the pitch is even thrown. Once the ball is struck, he gets a better jump than anyone else, making tough plays look routine and putting him in position to go for catches that most outfielders wouldn't even attempt.

Plus, he's fearless with his body, hurling himself onto the grass and into the wall if he's got a chance to catch the ball.

"He's on top of his game defensively," Cox said. "He catches every ball that's catchable. He's as good as there's ever been in the outfield. I can't tell you how many earned runs he's saved us over the last 10 years."

For some reason, though, there are fans who continually gripe that Jones is too blase, who say he should show more passion when he strikes out or makes the rarest of errors. That's just not his way, but it leads some people to accuse Jones of never reaching his full potential because he doesn't really want to.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

"He's never had a temper problem or anything like that. He never gets down on himself when he's struggling," Cox said. "But he's got a good heart for the game. He always wants to win the game."

Looking toward the clubhouse, the manager adds, "He's one of the leaders in there. He always has fun when he plays the game. And talk about a workaholic."

When Jones showed up for spring training about 10 pounds lighter, one talk-radio host sniped on the air that the player worked out harder over the winter because it's a contract year. Never mind that he's coming off the two most productive seasons of his career. Never mind that he's never been on the disabled list or played fewer than 153 games over a full year.

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