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Is it time for Chipper to hang 'em up?
In time, we will talk about Chipper Jones as a Hall of Fame candidate, the preeminent switch hitter of his generation, one of the best offensive third basemen in history.
We will offer the proper compliments to a player who is among the top 10 active players in hits and games played.
We will write warm stories about how Jones and his beloved manager, Bobby Cox, will probably retire together at the end of the season.
But not today.
Right now, Jones is a .233 hitter who isn’t ready to stop playing. And .233 hitters don’t usually have much say-so beyond what they eat for lunch.
Chipper, as the world knows, is considering retirement. An announcement could come very soon. But his agent, B.B. Abbott, told FOXSports.com on Tuesday that Jones will “absolutely not” walk away before the season is over. On Thursday, Jones told reporters he will not address retirement until after the season.
So, the Atlanta Braves have a very delicate situation on their hands. If they would like to remain in first place, it must be resolved very quickly – and with bluntly honest communication.
At issue: money, ego, and a proud man’s realization that he is (professionally) old. A standard midcareer crisis. It just so happens that we’re talking about a baseball player, rather than a corporate attorney who didn’t make partner.
Jones, 38, is well within his rights to stick around for the rest of this season. Heck, the Braves still owe him $14 million next year and $14 million the year after that. He could, in theory, hang out on the bench or disabled list and collect every penny.
But he doesn’t want to diminish his legacy by hanging on too long. That is commendable. Jones might soon make an announcement about his future.
And if he does, it should go something like this: I’m going to retire at the end of this season, and I should be a part-time player between now and then.
That’s right. If Cox won’t do it, Chipper Jones should bench himself.
He doesn’t need to permanently take himself out of the lineup, per se. But he should make clear to the Braves that he is only interested in sticking around if Cox and general manager Frank Wren believe he’s one of the best 25 players in the organization.
Right now, that’s not a given. Recently, he went 37 games without hitting a home run. He had six RBIs in April. He’s hitting just .221 with one homer from the left side – a startling regression, considering his .305/.409/.547 career line against right-handers.
But Jones has plenty of leverage, real and imagined.
Because he’s technically owed $28 million over the next two seasons, he could negotiate one of the greatest golden parachutes in baseball history. He can say to the Braves: I won’t show up to play next season, which will allow you to void the contract … as long as you hire me back as a well-compensated special adviser.
And then there is this: Jones is the most tenured of all the one-team-only guys in baseball today. He and the Braves deserve credit for making their relationship flourish after he became the first overall pick in the amateur draft 20 years ago.
Fans in Atlanta, who aren’t exactly known for packing the house, are pretty attached to Chipper. It wouldn’t be a good time to alienate them.
By releasing Tom Glavine last year, Wren showed that he can make tough business decisions involving franchise icons. But Glavine didn’t have a $28 million question mark attached to him.
The Braves’ internal options at third base – Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad – aren’t great. It’s hard to argue that either should play every day, particularly when Jones’ .376 on-base percentage remains one of the highest on the team. (And Jones did go 2-for-5 on Tuesday.)
Conrad is hitting better left-handed than he is right-handed. The opposite is true of Jones. So, maybe the Braves should consider a platoon.
But what if Wren can swing a deal for a third baseman? What if the Diamondbacks start shopping power threat Mark Reynolds? What if the Red Sox, desperate to trade Mike Lowell to a team outside of the American League, would give him to the Braves for a bargain price?
Then the team would need to free up a roster spot. And given the versatility that Conrad and Infante offer, it would be hard to justify Jones’ continued presence on the club. A stint on the disabled list for Jones would need to be discussed.
In pondering Jones’ future, I can’t help but think about Ken Griffey Jr., another legend who faded late.
Junior’s return to Seattle worked well – for awhile. He was great for the team (and clubhouse) during the 2009 season, less so this year. Sleepgate and a .184 batting average and frustrations all around.
Jones should save himself that anguish and only stick around as long as the Braves truly need him. Maybe that will mean serving as a super-utility player and pinch hitter. Maybe that will mean an extended stint on the DL if Wren adds a player with greater present value.
The Braves can win the division this season, and Jones can help them do it. Just not in the way that he always did. Only if he realizes that a phased-out retirement has a chance to work.
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