John Donovan
Wednesday May 23rd, 2007

The Braves have been trying for years to pound a little common-sense plate discipline into Andruw Jones. It's never been easy. In fact, there are times like these, right now, when Jones shows so little discipline in his at-bats -- or, worse yet, so little desire to alter his hitting approach at all -- that many around the organization want to take their hard-headed superstar and just strangle him.

This is the absolute worst time for Jones to go into one of his dig-in-my-heels funks, too. The Braves badly need him hitting well in the middle of the order if they're to challenge the Mets in the National League East. And from a strictly financial standpoint, this year couldn't be more important for Jones. The 30-year-old center fielder enters free agency after the season looking for what probably will be his last big payday, toting with him more than a decade in the big leagues, a reputation as the best defensive center fielder of his generation, one 51-homer season -- and a maddening notion that he somehow isn't the player he could be.

Jones' problem is one that a lot of sluggers have: the right-handed swinger who tries to yank just about everything he sees to left field. Pitchers will throw him offspeed stuff -- often away and in the dirt -- and Jones can't lay off it. Sometimes, it looks as if he doesn't even try to lay off of it. It's never been worse than it has been lately.

"I'm a pull hitter," Jones told reporters earlier this month after a stunning -- and short-lived -- dalliance with hitting to right field. "That's the way it is."

This is the way it is: Jones has struck out a galling 51 times in 191 plate appearances this season, including a five-whiff non-performance Sunday in Boston in which he left seven men on base. With 600 plate appearances -- that'd be quite a bit fewer than he had in '06 -- Jones is on track for about 164 strikeouts, a personal record. If you compute it by another method (strikeouts per game), Jones is on pace for 184 punchouts if he plays a full season.

Not exactly the resume-builder anyone would want going into free agency.

To be fair, Jones is getting his walks. He has 27, which, at his current rate, would come close to his career-high of 83.

Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton is constantly reminding Jones to keep his hands back, and a couple of years ago, Jones spread out his stance in an attempt to shorten his stride. (That year, 2005, was the one in which he launched 51 homers.) He's still using the spread-out stance -- though he apparently adjusted it a little in Tuesday's game -- and he's been so off-balance at the plate early this season that he sometimes has to put out his hand to keep himself from falling over after a swing.

When he's not whiffing so much, Jones is still a threat. He hit 41 homers and drove in 129 runs last season. He's averaged about 34 homers and 100 RBIs over his 10-plus years of playing. That'll get him plenty of money in next winter's free-agent frenzy. You can probably use Carlos Lee's six-year, $100 million contract with Houston or Vernon Wells' seven-year, $126 million extension with the Jays as jumping off points.

Still, Jones couldn't have envisioned his contract year going this way. He has a .220 batting average. His OPS is .749, nearly 100 points below his career average. Only Cincinnati's Adam Dunn has struck out more.

Sure, there is time for Jones to straighten things out. But if he doesn't -- if his early season problems last the whole year -- both he and the Braves will end up paying for it.

Here are nine other players in contract years:

Jermaine Dye, RF, White Sox At 33, Dye is coming off the best year of his career, hitting .315 with 44 homers and a 1.007 OPS. If teams could be sure they'd get that in '08, he'd be worth maybe twice the nearly $7 million he's making this season. The '05 World Series MVP is off to a sputtering start, hitting .239, but he does have 10 homers.

Jorge Posada, C, Yankees He's 35 years old, which is about 60 in catchers' years. But Posada, who earned an option year for '07 that pays him $12 million, is as good as ever. Maybe better. He's hitting .371 with a 1.025 OPS. He's caught at least 137 games for seven straight years, and he's considered a leader on the Yanks.

Omar Vizquel, SS, Giants When the Giants signed a 37-year-old Vizquel to a three-year, $12.25 million deal back in 2004, people laughed. But Vizquel averaged .283 with a .351 on-base percentage in his first two years, and has been as flashy as ever with the glove. Now 40, he's off to a slow start in '07, but someone will pay him in '08.

David Eckstein, SS, Cardinals Underappreciated by many, Eckstein was cut loose by the Angels three years ago and landed a modest three-year, $10.25 million contract with St. Louis. He's been fine, though, with a .293 average and .357 OBP. And a World Series MVP. He's struggling this year; we'll see if the Cards want him back.

Torii Hunter, CF, Twins The Twins surprised some by exercising Hunter's $12 million option this year, and he's responded with a torrid start (11 homers, .967 OPS). He'll be part of an exceptional market for center fielders (Jones, Ichiro, Mike Cameron, Aaron Rowand). Hunter, a six-time Gold Glover, should be at or near the top of it.

Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Mariners The M's want their superstar singles-hitter back, badly -- he's currently hitting .325 -- but after three straight last-place finishes, they have some convincing to do. Ichiro, who will be 34 next season, is making $11 million in '07. As a marketing phenomenon, he'll command more than that in '08 and beyond.

Mike Cameron, CF, Padres The Padres need a good defensive center fielder, especially in their park, and they like Cameron, who is making $7 million this year. But whether they will stick with him or go for one of the bigger names is something even they don't know yet. Cameron strikes out (142 times in '06), but he has some power, too.

Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees He's on his way to another MVP, he could end up being the all-time home run king and, if he does nothing but sit on his hands all year, he's still due $81 million for the three years after '07. But, yeah, A-Rod, 31, could opt out of this deal for another multi-year mega-contract. It'd be hard to pass up.

Eric Byrnes, OF, Diamondbacks A fearless defender, Byrnes, 31, isn't in the class of some of the other outfielders that will be free agents next winter. But he is coming off a 26-homer season, which will appeal to some, even if that .313 OBP in '06 does not. At about $4.5 million this year, he's a cheaper OF option.

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