27. Can Chipper Jones stay healthy?

The Braves missed Chipper Jones terribly in 2006, as he missed almost a third of the season with injuries. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks talks about the importance of Jones staying healthy next season.

This is one of the most discussed topics – with no real obvious answer. Chipper Jones is simply going to have to go out and prove he can stay healthy, but until he does Braves' fans will certainly talk about the importance of it happening.

The injuries came in bunches for Jones in 2006. He slipped on the wet turf in San Francisco the first week of the season and had a sprained right ankle and knee that kept him out for two weeks. Then in late July he strained his left oblique and missed two more weeks. That same injury kept him out for two more weeks in September. Jones played in only 110 games, missing 39 on the disabled list.

After averaging 157 games played in eight seasons, between 1996 and 2003, Jones has averaged just under 119 games per year the last three seasons. He's been on the disabled list five times in the last three years, with problems with his toe, oblique, hamstring, knee, and ankle.

The horrible thing for Braves' fans is that when Jones plays, he's still an elite player. He finished with a .324 average, 26 homers, and 86 RBI in only 411 at bats. In a complete season, Jones could have pushed 40 home runs and 120 RBI, which would have possibly put him in contention for another MVP.

Like the entire team, he struggled a bit in June. Jones hit only .271 and looked in shock that his team was falling apart. It was obvious that Jones did not adjust to being on a team that would not seriously contend for a playoff spot. He looked lifeless at times, almost embarrassed with the way he and his team were playing. Even though he was on the DL twice in the second half, when he played he was terrific. Jones hit .341 after the All Star Break, including a .500 (31-for-62) month of July. When he got hot after the All-Star Break, the Braves did as well, proving the notion that ‘as Chipper Jones goes, so go the Atlanta Braves.'

So there's no doubt he can still play, but how can the Braves keep Jones healthy? He joked late in the year that he's worked out harder the last two offseasons than he has at any point in his career. Maybe, he surmised half seriously and half-joking, he should simply sit around all winter and do nothing. Well, as he approaches 35 years old next April, Jones is going to have to do something to prepare for the season, but he might be better off doing a bit less than he has the past two winters.

There is no doubt that Jones' absence in the lineup hurt the team. Yeah, the overall team offense was outstanding this past season. But when you watched the games, there was a definite hole when Jones was out. Even though Wilson Betemit and then Willy Aybar performed well filling in for Jones, there was no mystery that Jones' absence hurt a great deal.

If Andruw Jones is traded this winter, Chipper Jones is going to have to shoulder even more responsibility in the lineup and in the clubhouse. Jones is not a clubhouse guy, as he proved in June when the team was struggling. But it's imperative for him to take on a greater role with this young team. Part of that responsibility can be helped if he stays healthy.

Of course, staying healthy can include some luck, and Jones has definitely not been lucky with injuries the last two years. When he slipped in San Francisco, many thought he might miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. That was definitely a fluke injury. But when a player starts to have oblique and groin problems, it's natural to wonder if they are just wearing down.

Could all those years of player 157 games have simply caught up with Jones? Should we simply presume that he's going to miss 30-40 games a season for the rest of his career – no matter what?

Those are two scary things for Braves' fans to consider. Jones is under contract for two more years, possibly for three. So it's crucial for him to be as physically ready to play a full season as possible, and Jones said that will be his goal heading into next season. If there are major changes in the lineup next year, it will be critical that Jones will be in that revamped lineup as much as possible.

So goes Chipper Jones, so go the Atlanta Braves – as we clearly found out this season. That's why it's so important for him to play much more in 2007.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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