Where Will Chipper Play?

One of the big questions of the offseason that must be answered by the Atlanta Braves as they prepare to formulate their 2005 roster is, "Where will Chipper Jones play?" Bill Shanks analyzes whether Jones will stay at third base or move back to the outfield.

There is little doubt that the move of Chipper Jones back to third base was a critical point in the 2004 season for the Atlanta Braves. He struggled with his hamstring while in left, which in turn affected his offense. But after Jones moved back to third on June 15th, his offense noticeably improved.

The question of what to do with Jones now would not even be a question if not for the presence of a young Dominican third baseman in the Braves system named Andy Marte. He is an outstanding prospect, with tremendous power potential and a Gold Glove caliber fielder at third base.

The dilemma, if you will, is that Marte is not ready. He's close to being ready, but he's not at a point where the Braves can go ahead and plan for him to be in the lineup. Marte will probably start 2005 in AAA, and it's not out of the question for him to play well enough to be brought up sometime during the season. But it's also not out of the question for him to spend one more full season in the minor leagues.

So as for now, the plan is to keep Chipper Jones at third base for the 2005 season. The Braves evidently feel that there is no reason to have contingency plans until there's a certain need. In other words, they're going to deal with the Marte situation when he's good and ready to be a major leaguer.

It is strikingly similar to the situation the Marlins had in 2003. They had a great third baseman in Mike Lowell and an excellent prospect in Miguel Cabrera. When Cabrera became ready for the big leagues, they decided to keep Lowell at third and put Cabrera in the outfield, even though Cabrera, like Marte, was considered an excellent fielder at third.

Expect Andy Marte to get a little time in the outfield during spring training and also in AAA. There's no point in throwing him into the outfield cold once he reaches the minor leagues. Let him get some innings out there just in case the decision will be the same as the Marlins when he gets ready.

If Chipper's hamstring totally heals this winter with the rest, it's possible the Braves could talk with him about his feelings of moving back to the outfield at some point. I know it might be difficult to tell him that, "Hey we've got this hotshot third baseman and we're eventually going to have to make room for him." But Jones knows they had to have a similar conversation with Terry Pendleton in the winter of 1994 when they told him he was not going to be re-signed. The Braves had to tell Pendleton they were letting him go because they were putting this young kid named Chipper Jones at third base.

Jones played very well at third base last season, much better than his play in left field. But Marte's got a shot at being a Gold-Glover over at third. So do they throw a potential Gold Glove third baseman in left field? Or do they return a guy who had trouble in the outfield there? Were Chipper's defensive shortcomings all because of his hamstring? Or was he just a bad defensive outfielder?

The Braves can't solve the "dilemma" by trading Chipper Jones. His contract is just too expensive for any club to take on, and no, the Braves aren't the type of franchise to eat a contract in order to get somebody to take him off their hands. They don't want to trade Chipper, and they shouldn't have to. But they are eventually going to have to answer the question of whether Chipper stays at third or moves back to left, and how that affects young Mr. Marte.

But as of now, they don't have to worry about it. Chipper's penciled in at third base right now for 2005. There's plenty of time left before Opening Day 2005 so things can change. But as of now, third base is where Chipper is going to be.

Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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