28. Can Andruw Jones repeat his 2005 season?

As Bill Shanks continues his look at the top 35 questions facing the Braves this winter, he talks about Andruw Jones. Has the centerfielder turned the corner after his fabulous 2005 season?

When Andruw Jones popped onto the scene at the end of the 1996 season, there was no doubt the Atlanta Braves had one of the top young talents in the history of the game. You could just see it. He had power, speed, and unparalleled defensive ability. He topped that off with a historic World Series performance against the New York Yankees.

The kid was only nineteen years old. His potential was unbelievable, and immediately fans placed high expectations on the native of Curacao.

From 1998 through 2004, Jones became a very good player. His defense was spectacular, and he averaged 32 home runs and just under 100 RBI per season. The offense was solid, and to be that consistent of a 30-home run, 100-RBI type player said that Jones was an important part of the Atlanta lineup.

But fans still expected more. Jones would show flashes that he could be a dominating player, but instead would still put up 30-36 home runs and around 100 RBI. That's good, but not the spectacular player many expected would develop after he burst onto the scene in 1996.

Then last spring Jones showed he might be "turning the corner." He hit 10 home runs during spring training, and displayed more power in his swing than ever before. But when the bell rang for the regular season, Jones struggled. It wasn't until his teammate, Chipper Jones, went down with an injury, that another teammate challenged Jones to become the player everyone knew he could be.

John Smoltz told Andruw Jones the team needed him. If the Braves were going to survive through the absence of Chipper Jones, Andruw was going to have to carry the team on his shoulders.

Jones responded with a remarkable stretch, hitting .311 with 15 home runs and 37 RBI in the next 37 games. Jones' hot streak propelled the team into first place. If Jones had struggled, there is no way the team would have been able to make a run for its fourteenth straight division title.

The now 28-year old Jones finished with 51 home runs and 128 RBI. He is one of the top candidates for the National League MVP Award, which will be announced this week.

But as we look ahead toward the future, it's natural to wonder if Jones will be able to maintain this high level of play. Has he turned the corner and become the player many believed he could become when he debuted in 1996? Or was 2005 a mirage and we should ‘only' expect him to return to his normal 30-home run, 100-RBI level next season?

Even though Jones has been around for nine-plus seasons, he's in his prime, at least according to his age. He'll be 29 years old next April, and most believe players are in their prime from 27-33 years old. So Jones should be turning the corner and becoming the player he showed he could be in 2005. Why should we believe it was only a fluke?

When many players turn the corner, it gives them a greater confidence that they can play at a higher level. They know they've done it, so it's not going to be a surprise if they do it again. And the 2005 season has got to give Jones that same belief that he has become a great offensive player.

It's going to be difficult, however, for fans to expect anything less now than what Jones produced in 2005. This will be a mistake. If Jones does average 50 home runs and 125 RBI over the next several seasons, then the Braves will have one of the best players in the game. However, It might be much more realistic to simply expect Jones to be somewhere in between of his 2004 and 2005 statistics, which won't be too bad at all.

If Jones can simply be a player that will continue to be a huge threat in the middle of the Atlanta lineup, one that could produce between 35-45 home runs per season, then people should be ashamed if they complain. Jones will no doubt continue to be an excellent defensive player, and if he does produce solid middle-of-the-order statistics, he will remain a top player.

We are watching a player produce a Hall-of-Fame career right in front of our eyes. Jones now has 301 home runs and 894 RBI before his 29th birthday. If Jones plays until he's 40, and if over the next twelve seasons he averages 30 home runs and 90 RBI, he'll have more home runs than Willie Mays and more RBI than any other Brave not named Hank Aaron.

Whether he'll repeat his exact 2005 season or not, there's a good chance Andruw Jones has turned the corner for good, and he'll now be one of the best players in the National League for many years to come. That's what Braves fans had been waiting for, and it's going to be a lot of fun to watch him play as he continues his impressive career.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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