Should Braves fans be worried?
All-Star Atlanta third basemen, Larry Wayne "Chipper" Jones, Jr returns to midseason injury issues, suffering a muscle strain in his right side, and opting out of the rest the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
He heads back to Braves' Spring Training camp to rehabilitate. Hopefully he's in the lineup come Opening Day when Atlanta plays the defending World Series Champion Phillies in Philly.
Lil Wayne rests until real baseball, MLB's 162-game regular season schedule, starts in April. Jones hasn't a stayed healthy enough to play an entire season in his entire baseball career, playing 160 games in 1998—the year before his NL MVP season.
So, Braves fans had to expect an injury to occur to him at some point this season, but did they expect it to be this soon?
Braves fans need not worry just yet; Jones said he should be fine in a week or two, and proclaimed "Yes, We Can!" to changing some of the rules to the WBC.
No hits for Jones in 10 at-bats during the 2009 WBC...so yeah...the World Baseball Classic needs some rule changes. How dare players play the game hard, with love and pride for their homeland?
This isn't the World Series. These games mean nothing.
Don't worry Chip, I doubt Braves play in World Series this season with or without you, so your injury means nothing and you will have plenty of time to rest.
Spring Training games and exhibition tournaments like the WBC are both meaningless for most Braves fans—as long as Jones returns by opening day and plays an entire season.
Too bad, that's not possible for him or anyone this late in his career. Depending on how far the Braves are down in the standings, Chip will no longer be off the trade block.
Without Jones, it will be incumbent on Braves skipper Bobby Cox to motivate an exceptional young Yunel Escobar, who currently serves as Atlanta's starting shortstop, in returning to his more natural position at third base to help reduce the teams' 115 errors and a low fielding percentage last season.
Jones himself botched double-dight errors for the first time since 2006, and Escobar booted 16 in his 121 games for the Braves last season.
Middle infielders Martin Prado and Omar Infante also expected to share fielding responsibilities should Chipper be out past opening day or re-aggravate the injury later in the season.
But fielding is NOT what concerns Braves fans and management heading into the upcoming season should they be without the Hall-of-Famer Jones for the first time in 16 years.
Although his games played and have been steady declining over the years and a below 100 RBI production in four of the last five seasons, Jones' career-high .364 batting average last year and his consistent 20 homers—20 doubles every year, must be replaced by the yet still unproven major-leaguers in Prado, Infante, and Escobar.
At shortstop, Escobar played over 100 games for the first time in his two-year Braves career, smacked 24 doubles, and hit 10 homers. Braves fans expect Escobar to vastly improve on those numbers this season, but can he put up numbers comparable to his NL East counterparts?
Mets Jose Reyes, Phillies Jimmy Rollins, and Marlins Hanley Ramirez have ALL been All-Stars, so Escobar will have his work cut out for him in that respect.
Nationals' shortstop prospect Esmailyn Gonzálezn deemed too old to play next season and Christian Guzman nowhere on the league level.
Even if he plays third for an injured Jones, Escobar's base counterparts in the NL East include All-Star "Mr. Met" David Wright, who is tearing up over Shea's desolation row, and the Nationals lone All-Star hopeful Ryan "Robert Allen" Zimmerman, who is tearing up the Spring Training charts.
Can do no good Jorge Cantu plays third in Florida, and Pedro Feliz stands at the hot corner in Philly.
Obviously, All-Star catcher Brian McCann will need to increase his team-high 23 homers, 42 doubles, and 87 RBI or the prospects of a Wild Card or NL East division crown will be out of the question.
Coming off the worst season of his four year career.
A season where the former 2002 first round draft pick and current Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur posted career-lows in homers (11), which was less than when he played 70 games in his rookie season, batting average (.239) knocking in a mere 71 RBI, and striking out over 100 times for the third straight year in 2008.
His arm strength and accuracy is reason enough to keep Franceour in the lineup and on the field for most the season, but Braves brass sent him to minors for a short time last year due to his poor offensive production.
So if he under performs again this year, Francoeur may be rocking it in Gwinnett County for a few games. If Francoeur struggles again, Braves fans' will be frustrated all summer long, whether Chipper stays 100 percent healthy or is traded.
With an Escobar move third, Braves 2007 draft pick, Brandon Hicks may be called up to showcase his range at shortstop and big pop at the plate. At 6'2", 200 pounds, Hicks played only one college season (67 games) for the Texas A&M Aggies, averaging over .340 at the plate, and slugging 10 homers.
In a short transition stint between the Rookie League and the Class-A Rome Braves, Hicks' .285 batting average seven home runs were even more impressive than his walk-to-strikeout-ratio (39:44). Should Hicks be called upon, he will be paid to get on base, score runs, and play solid defensive.
While it's too early to predict how Jones' injuries, if serious, will impact the Braves' playoff chances, but they will do so negatively if he's out for any extended period of time.
Chipper's come back from injuries in the past, but at age 37, how does his beaten-down body handle such a nagging injury all year, and can he return to all-star stats productivity before he retires?
Jones' baseball longevity solidifies his Hall-of-Fame lock-ness. His durability over the long haul still remains a legitimate concern that must be considered from here on out for the rest of Chipper's MLB career.
What does he have left, four or five more years? He will need to work that much harder every season now until he retires to avoid injuries shortening his career by a few years.
Jones clearly doesn't want to play this Spring Training, so are Braves fans to expect this to become a regular occurrence for Chipper in March. Team USA should be eliminated soon but his Atlanta teammates and patriotic baseball peers still vie for world baseball supremacy, whether Jones is a part of the team.
Jones' level of respectability among other major-leaguers in America's pastime will never be questioned, but when will he take responsibility for his injuries and the Braves recent struggles over the past few seasons?
Sure, he's not the only reason for the Braves poor finishes but as the best player on the team he needs to accept most the blame. Despite his career numbers last year, Chipper's best days may be behind, but the Braves need him healthy and productive to stay competitive and win this season.
And when Jones finally does call it a career, the Braves will realize how valuable Jones has been to them over the years and Atlanta will never be the same team again.
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