One of the many questions often debated in the Braves Nation is the future at third base. With the presence of top prospect Andy Marte, many wonder what will happen when he is actually ready. Will Marte go to the outfield, a la Miguel Cabrera? Will the Braves ask Chipper Jones to move back to the outfield so Marte can play third base?
Sometimes it's best to ask the main party involved. So Chipper, is third base where you want to stay?
"Without a doubt," he said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.
The Braves drafted Jones with the first overall pick in the 1990 draft as a shortstop. They first moved him to the outfield in 1994 after Ron Gant broke his lead on a motorbike. But then Jones tore his Anterior Cruciate Ligament in a Spring Training game that March.
After recovering from the injury, Jones was then asked to move from shortstop, where Jeff Blauser was in place as the starter, to third base. Terry Pendleton, the 1991 National League Most Valuable Player, was allowed to leave via free agency opening up a spot for Jones at the hot corner.
That's where he stayed for the next seven seasons. Jones became one of the top third baseman in the league, averaging 32.4 home runs and 105.3 RBI over that period. After questions popped up about his defense, the Braves moved Jones to the outfield before the 2002 season and signed third baseman Vinny Castilla.
After two seasons in left field, Jones asked to go back to third base after suffering a hamstring injury in April of 2005. Mark DeRosa, handed the starting third base job in Spring Training, was struggling. So the move was necessary to try to jumpstart a struggling offense. Jones started his first game at third base on June 15 in Atlanta.
"I never realized how much I missed it until I got back," Jones said. "It re-energized me."
That it did. Once Jones settled back in as the third baseman, he had an exceptional second half of the season hitting .278 with 18 home runs and 62 RBI in 252 at bats after the All Star Break. He also played stellar defense at third base, committing only six errors in 96 games back at his preferred location.
"I realize now that I am a third baseman, through and through," Jones says, "and that I will always be a third baseman, and that I am I'm not going to move again."
But that is what presents the problem. It is not thought that Marte will be ready on Opening Day of 2005, but many in the organization believe he could be ready for the big leagues sometime during the season. Whether it's then or 2006, Marte is the type of player who could be handed a job. He's that good.
But what if the job he's going to want is already occupied?
Well, this is very similar to the situation the Florida Marlins had in the summer of 2003. Miguel Cabrera, himself a top third base prospect, became ready after a tremendous start to his season. But the Marlins already had a starting third baseman, and a good one, in Mike Lowell. So they moved Cabrera to right field, where he went on to help them win the World Series.
It is very possible that Marte will start to see some time in the outfield during Spring Training. Despite the fact that Marte is an outstanding defensive third baseman, Jones is under contract with two more seasons. The Braves also have options on him for 2007 and 2008 that could kick in by him making 450 plate appearances or the All Star team in the previous season. So it's possible that Jones could be around for four more years.
So what of Marte until then?
"He's close to being ready," Jones believes. "He showed a lot of promise last year in big league camp. He had some good games. It's not my decision whether he's ready or not. All I worry about is the fact that it's my job and I'm going to try to hold on to it for as long as possible."
But Jones says that if the time comes when Marte is ready and the Braves want for the rookie to play third base, then, "we'll discuss that when it happens." But he doesn't think that time is now.
"I would have figured that if they thought he was ready this offseason, I would have already been fielding some phone calls as to some solutions to the problem," Jones said. "I have yet to hear from the Braves, so I'm going to go into Spring Training expecting to be the starting third baseman for the Atlanta Braves."
Jones realizes that Marte is an exceptional prospect, much like he was in 1995 when he replaced Pendleton. But the inevitable situation is not something he's worried too much about. He's just glad he's at third base again, hoping to get back to the offensive player he was before he moved to left field.
"It doesn't bother me," he says. "I realize that there are going to be prospects that come and prospects that go. Some are going to stick and some aren't. I don't know which ones those are. Obviously, Andy Marte has a bright future ahead of him. Maybe it'll be with the Braves and maybe it won't. All I can worry about is my job and taking care of it."
Marte, who just turned 21 in late October, hit .269 with 23 home runs and 68 RBI in 107 games for the Greenville Braves in 2004. The Braves may start him back in AA to start the 2005 campaign, particularly if they decide to go ahead and get him some playing time in the outfield. However, his offensive potential could have him knocking on the door at some point next summer.
The Braves will worry about it then. For now, third base belongs to Chipper Jones.
Bill Shanks can be reached at email@example.com
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