Feeling Chipper again
If you sat down and tried to come up with the 10 best players in baseball today, it's a good bet Chipper Jones wouldn't crack your list. Even if you limited that little argument-starting exercise to the 10 best hitters, the Braves third baseman still isn't going to land on a lot of ballots. You could argue that with emergent talents like Miguel Cabrera, David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman -- these are just the guys who play Chipper's position in his division -- Jones may no longer belong among the Top 10 hitters in the National League.
Then again, you could argue Jones has had a remarkable run in his 13 years in the big leagues, a career that has included a ton of playoff games, a World Series win (1995), a Most Valuable Player award ('99), a couple of Silver Slugger awards and plenty of Top 10 appearances on the NL's leaderboards. Taken as a whole, that constitutes a career that's probably bound for the Hall of Fame (which is more than you can say for those other guys right now). You could argue, really easily, that he can still hit with the best. Look at Jones' career numbers. Look where he stands on the list of current players in a key statistical categories [see charts]. This guy can rake.
At least when he's playing. That, as it works out, is the trick for Jones this year, as it has been for the past three. When Jones plays, he's been one of the best hitters in the game, with not much debate. He has patience and power. He's smart at the plate. He's a switch hitter, too, which earns him bonus points in his quest for the Hall of Fame
Still, these last three years have been a killer for Chipper's reputation. This might be painful to point out about anyone, but in all fairness, it has to be mentioned: In the past three years, J.D. Drew has played in seven more games than Jones. Now that's gotta hurt.
I bring this up because Jones -- as good as he has been, as good as he is and still can be -- has to be very good this season, not only to get his career back on track, but for the Braves to have a chance in the NL East. That's not to say that everything in Atlanta rests on Jones. The success of the starting rotation, specifically the rebounding Mike Hampton and the so-far disappointing Tim Hudson, is vitally important. Ryan Langerhans has to take charge in left field. The right side of the infield, penciled in as Scott Thorman and Kelly Johnson, has to be at least passable.
But, as much as anything, Jones has to be healthy and playing like he's healthy. Because when he's healthy enough to play, we've seen what he can do. Heck, even hobbled, Jones has been very good. Over the past three years, he's battled hamstring, oblique and foot injuries -- were oblique injuries even invented in the '40s, by the way? -- and he's still had an OPS of more than .930 (playing in 356 games).
Jones is 34 now (35 in April), which, historically speaking, puts him on the downward side of his career. That doesn't mean, of course, that he doesn't have plenty left. He probably does. It just means that he's going to have to show it or the Braves will be in big trouble ... and Jones will slip farther down on everybody's list of best players in the game.
Here are nine other 30-something hitters who need to turn it on again, for both their sakes and their teams'. (I looked at both leagues, but these guys just happen to all play in the NL):
Moises Alou -- The Mets signed Alou to a one-year, $8.5 million deal, and a lot of people think that was truly a deal. It works out, though, only if Alou and his bum back stay healthy, something that was a problem in '06 (98 games). Alou, 41 in July, is no Hall of Famer, but he's a feared hitter who absolutely feasts on lefties (a .330 hitter in his career). When he can stand.
Craig Biggio -- Still one of the game's biggest gamers, Biggio, 41, is nowhere near the player he once was. He had the worst season of a 19-year career in 2006, with a miserable .306 on-base percentage. He's 70 hits away from 3,000, making his place in Cooperstown assured. The Astros could use the old Biggio in '07.
Barry Bonds -- I get the feeling Bonds' place in the Hall of Fame won't rest on how he does this season, or in however many seasons he plays after this one. But the Giants need Bonds to live up to what could be a $20 million contract by staying healthy for at least as many games (130) as he played in last season. If not, they're toast.
Nomar Garciaparra -- The Dodgers' Garciaparra still has good power and a stunning ability to put the bat on the ball. He proved in '06 that he can play first base, too. Still, Garciaparra appeared in just 122 games last season. Nomar, 33, needs to rediscover the secret to staying healthy or his Hall of Fame chances are in real jeopardy.
Luis Gonzalez -- The one-time face of the Diamondbacks has moved on to the Dodgers, where he aims to prove he's not dead yet. And there's evidence, beyond the actual breathing thing, that he might be right. Gonzo, 39, won't ever come close to the 57 home runs he had in 2001. But he cranked a career-high 52 doubles last year and did a good job cutting down his strikeouts.
Todd Helton -- After years of putting up mind-boggling numbers in mile-high Coors Field, Helton, 33, came down with a thud last season, posting career lows in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. Maybe it was the humidor, but more probably Helton's slide was due to an intestinal bug that floored him early in the year.
Jeff Kent -- He played in only 115 games in '06, fewer than in any full season since '93, and his power numbers plummeted. Still, the 39-year-old Kent is one of the better-hitting second basemen around. A healthy year (550 plate appearances) guarantees him $9 million with the Dodgers in '08 -- and it won't hurt his Hall of Fame candidacy, either.
Scott Rolen -- An all-around force in 2004, powerful with the bat and sure-gloved at third, Rolen ran into L.A.'s Hee-Seop Choi at first base in May 2005. A mostly missed season in '05, a couple of shoulder operations later and ... here we are. Rolen, soon to be 32, began to make his way back in '06. A rebound season will return him to the game's elite.
Omar Vizquel -- Few shortstops make things look as effortless in the field as the Giants' Vizquel, who turns 40 in April. After a huge slump in the second half of the '05 season (he hit .229), Vizquel bucked up some in '06, though he still staggered in September (.225). He needs to show he can still play a full season. The Giants need it more.