When Chipper Jones moved back to third base last May, no one really knew if it was a temporary move or if he was back there for good. There was no doubt he was happier and more productive back at the position that got him to the All-Star game five times between 1995 and 2001. But with an up and coming third baseman knocking on the door of the major leagues, it was natural to wonder if Jones would be moving back to the outfield once young Andy Marte was ready.
But Jones cleared all that up when he told BravesCenter in November that he was happy at third base and "I realize now that I am a third baseman, through and through, and that I will always be a third baseman, and that I am not going to move again."
So the question then became, ‘What are the Braves going to do with Marte?' He is a superb defensive player at third base, with many scouts predicting several Gold Gloves in his future. But if Jones is going to stay at third, and since he's under contract for as many as four more seasons, it seemingly leaves Marte without a position.
A few months ago the Braves made the decision to try Marte in the outfield. The thought was the move would be very similar to the one made by Miguel Cabrera, who was blocked at third base with the Florida Marlins by Mike Lowell two years ago. Cabrera moved to right field and has become a very decent outfielder. The Braves also believed that if Ryan Klesko, who was blocked at first base in 1994 by veteran slugger Fred McGriff, could move to the outfield and become a decent player, so could Marte.
Consequently, the Braves had Marte take some fly balls down in his homeland of the Dominican Republic, where the team operates a training facility. However, Marte did not do very well in the outfield; reportedly it was somewhat of an adventure out there for him. And with that in mind, John Schuerholz's claim in the adjoining article that Marte is going to stay at third base cements the fact that the experiment is over, at least for now.
Some in the organization were hesitant about Marte moving from third base to the outfield anyway, mainly because of his tremendous ability to play defense at third base. Power hitting, Gold-Glove caliber third baseman don't come around very often; it's usually a bit easier to develop starting outfielders. So there was some skepticism about whether or not Marte could handle the change anyway. He's just so good at third base that it was almost a shame to move him from there in the first place.
It is still possible that the Braves could allow Marte to occasionally work in the outfield, particularly when he gets to Spring Training and will be able to work with additional instructors. But considering his initial test down in the Dominican, the plan now is for him to stay at third base.
So what does this mean? Well, Marte will more than likely head either back to AA or to the Triple-A team in Richmond. Some in the organization believe it wouldn't hurt him to go back to AA for about a month or six weeks. This kid is still only 21 years old, which is still unbelievably young. But if he has a solid spring training, particularly at big league camp, he'll more than likely go to AAA – and play third base.
But then what? If Chipper continues to do well at third, he's not going to want to leave there. He clearly wasn't happy in left field, and now that he knows how comfortable he is again at third, he's going to be even more reluctant to make a switch once again to left. However, he did leave the door slightly ajar when asked about Marte in the November interview.
"He's close to being ready," Chipper says of Marte. "He showed a lot of promise last year in big league camp. He had some good games. It's not my decision as to whether he's ready or not. All I worry about is the fact that that's my job and I'm going to try to hold on to it for as long as possible. Obviously, if the Braves feel that he's ready and they want to move me, we'll discuss that when it happens."
And that's still entirely possible. If Marte does not show any ability to play left field when given the opportunity, the Braves may have no other choice but to approach Jones about a possible switch back to left field. Chipper wasn't great in left field, but he wasn't totally embarrassing either. The Braves know he can play out there, and they also know that Marte, who is 12 years younger than Jones, is a much better third baseman right now. So the most logical choice may be moving Jones back to the position he's not too crazy about playing.
Then again, there are two other options. If Jones resists another move, the Braves might have to make Marte wait to take over at third base after Jones is gone, which could be as far away as the 2009 season. And as Schuerholz said in the interview, "We're going to need a third baseman someday."
Schuerholz could also use the phenom in a major trade. Marte is a significant commodity, and he would command a tremendous price considering many in baseball rate him as one of the top prospects in the game. John Schuerholz is always dangerous when he has options, and goodness knows how big the trade would be if Marte were involved. There is little chance the team could trade Jones, considering he is a 10/5 player, meaning he has ten years in the major leagues and five years with the same team. He can veto any potential deal; but the largest obstacle would be Jones's huge contract, not very appealing to a team possibly acquiring a player in his mid-30's.
The Braves do not seem too worried about anything. When they usually have situations like this pop up, it always seem to work out. And there's no reason to believe, particularly considering the success this franchise has had over the past fourteen seasons that this situation won't work out as well. They have two terrific players here, one a soon-to-be 33-year old veteran who is happy at third base and doesn't really want to move, and a 21-year old kid that plays third base better than most major leaguers today. It's not what you can really call a "problem," but more of a situation. And either way, it'll probably turn out just fine. But it sure will be fun to watch and see what happens.
Bill Shanks can be reached at email@example.com
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