28. Will Andruw Jones be traded?

Could this be the most crucial decision in the history of the Braves' franchise? Will Andruw Jones be traded this winter? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks takes an extensive look at the situation with the Braves' centerfielder.

This is one question where the answer could change on a daily basis. A week ago, we might not have believed Andruw Jones would be traded. But after the midweek article in the Atlanta Constitution that included comments from Jones' agent Scott Boras, it's almost silly to believe he won't be dealt this winter.

Boras told the AJC that Jones' next contract will dwarf his current deal, and he hinted that the asking price could approach $20 million per season.

Now let's forget about the Braves' financial situation for a minute. Let's first examine whether or not Andruw Jones is even worth a contract between $15 and $20 million dollars.

Jones is on pace to be a Hall of Fame player. Heck, if he retired today he might get in. But if he stays healthy, he could be up with some of the All-Time greats. He turns 30 years old next April, and he has 342 career home runs and 1023 runs batted in.

Jones has averaged 35 home runs and 104 RBI in the nine years he's been a full-time regular. Remember, Jones came up at the end of the 1996 season at the age of 19 and then got 399 at bats in 1997 at the age of 20. But the last two seasons, Jones' averages have skyrocketed. He's averaged 46 home runs and 128.5 RBI in his last two years, much higher than his nine-year average.

If Jones averages what he's been averaging the last nine seasons in home runs and RBI over the next 11 seasons (when he's 40 years old), Jones will finish with 727 home runs and 2167 runs batted in, which would be third best in history (with the current leaders). Even if he averages just 30 home runs and 90 RBI in his next eleven seasons, he'll finish with 672 home runs and 2013 runs batted in – which would be fourth best in history for both categories with today's current leaders.

Then you talk about his defense. If he wins the Gold Glove Award again next month, it'll be his 9th of his career. Only four outfielders (Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., and Al Kaline) have more than Jones. Clemente is the leader with 12, and Jones should shatter that record if he stays healthy.

So here's a player that is on pace to be among the game's greatest players in history. And statistically he's gotten much better the last two seasons, becoming one of the game's great run producers and power hitters. Defensively, you could argue that Jones was even better in 2006 than he has been the last several seasons. He made more diving catches coming in, and particularly late in the season he made more memorable running catches than he's ever made before.

But there is no doubt that all the diving Jones has done in the outfield over the last ten years has taken a toll on his body. He played in 156 games this past season, but his body was beat down by nagging injuries. With the Braves seeing Chipper Jones struggle to stay healthy the last two years, should there be any concern that as Andruw Jones gets into his 30s he too will struggle to stay in the lineup? Would they regret giving a long-term, big money contract to a player that some think could inevitably break down physically in a few years?

Twelve players made $15 million dollars or more in 2006, including three outfielders: Barry Bonds ($19.3 million), Manny Ramirez ($18.3), and Magglio Ordonez ($16.2). There is no doubt with his last two seasons that Jones belongs in the top echelon of paid players. He's one of the best overall players in the game.

Salaries have leveled off a bit from earlier in the decade when Boras got a gigantic deal for Alex Rodriguez and Ramirez and Jason Giambi got close near the $20 million dollar mark. But that's not going to stop Boras from asking for close to that mark for Jones. We're talking about a player that will turn 30 next April, arguably in the prime of his career.

Okay, so if Jones deserves to be one of the highest paid players in the game, something Boras is licking his chops over, the next question is how much is he exactly going to want. Boras hinted that he's going to seek something near $20 million dollars. Well, the Braves probably wouldn't pay that even if they could. With an $80 million payroll right now, there's no way they could afford that amount.

Boras said there will be no hometown discount, and that might be the case. But it's still fair to wonder what Jones would accept from the Braves. The very bottom amount the team might pay him is $15 million a season, which again would still be a stretch under the current payroll limitations. That might be the highest the Braves offer him, say a six-year, $90 million dollar deal.

That doesn't exactly dwarf Jones' current deal, which averages out to $12.5 million over the six years of the deal. So Boras is going to argue that the average would have to at least be $5 million more per season than his previous contract. That would make a six- year deal in the $105 million neighborhood.

Jones does not want to leave Atlanta, and it's hard to imagine he would turn down something in that range. But is that ($17.5) the lowest average salary he would accept? He's made just under $74 million dollars in his career. How much does he need to stay in Atlanta if he's really happy?

Then the question moves to the Braves' ability to put him in that category. Can they pay him what he's going to want? With the ownership situation in limbo, it's something John Schuerholz may not even know for sure. If somehow, someway, Liberty Media comes in and increases payroll, then Schuerholz might have the ability to pay Jones somewhere in the neighborhood of what he's going to want. But the sale of the team might not be approved until after the team is going to need to know, making it a sticky situation.

Liberty Media could certainly win over Braves' fans by keeping Andruw Jones, but from all indications, they are going to own the team for two years and sell it off as soon as the tax restrictions are complete. But if they want to maintain the value of the franchise, so that when they do turn around and sell the team in two years they can make a healthy profit, it would certainly help if the retain one of the Braves' star players.

Timing is everything in baseball, and that's what makes this situation so interesting. Think of these questions:
1. Does Schuerholz wait on the sale of the team to see if there is any way new ownership would pay for Jones?
2. Does Schuerholz simply gamble that new ownership is not going to loosen the purse strings and goes ahead and tries to trade Jones this winter?
3. Does Schuerholz gamble that the closer Jones gets to free agency next summer the more he'll want to remain in Atlanta, and that his wife, an Atlanta-girl, will pressure him to stay home and ignore whatever Boras is telling them?
4. Does Schuerholz also gamble that Jones will once again take matters into his own hands and negotiates the deal without Boras – as he did with his dad last time his contract was coming up?

History tells us that if Jones is allowed to file for free agency, he might be as good as gone. Mike Adams, one of the moderators on our message board, compiled a list of Boras' free agents earlier in the week in an Andruw Jones' discussion. Check out some of Boras' clients that have filed for free agency over the last few years. Most of his clients not only file for free agency, but then sign with another team that makes the highest offer.

Adrian Beltre - FA (Dodgers to Mariners)
Carlos Beltran - FA (Astros to Mets)
Kevin Brown - FA (Padres to Dodgers)
Johnny Damon - FA (Red Sox to Yankees)
J.D. Drew - FA (Braves to Dodgers)
Derek Lowe - FA (Red Sox to Dodgers)
Greg Maddux - FA (Braves to Cubs)
Magglio Ordonez - FA (White Sox to Tigers)
Chan Ho Park - FA (Dodgers to Rangers)
Alex Rodriguez - FA (Mariners to Rangers)
Kevin Millwood - FA (Indians to Rangers)
Ivan Rodriguez - FA (Marlins to Tigers)
Zito - FA (will sign elsewhere)
Varitek - FA (remained with original team – Red Sox)

So that puts the focus back on this winter. With the ownership situation still in limbo, and considering Boras' comments last week, it just seems unlikely that Schuerholz would risk losing Jones next winter for nothing. And then you have the relationship between Boras and Schuerholz. From all accounts, they despise one another. Will that hurt the chances of Jones re-signing even more?

Chances are Schuerholz is going to have an open mind this winter about trading Jones. Despite any desire to keep him in a Braves' uniform, Schuerholz would almost not be doing his job if he did not at least see what the market might be for Jones.

And he's going to know that the market is going to be limited. There are only a certain number of clubs that could afford Jones at his 2007 salary ($13.5 million), and there are only a certain number of clubs that could afford to turn around and give Jones the big long-term contract Jones is going to want when his contract is up next year.

Again, Jones can veto any deal, but most believe that if the Braves came to Jones with a trade to a big market team, one that would give him the big money in another year, he would not turn it down. Jones values his time in a Braves' uniform, so it's unlikely he'd want to ‘stiff' the team by not allowing the Braves to get equal value for him.

You might think that Jones' misunderstanding of the waiver situation back in July might cause him to have some hard feelings, which would make him somewhat apathetic to the Braves' needs. But Jones still has too much respect for Bobby Cox to do anything like that. The presence of Boras makes it a bit more complicated, as he could care less about anything except getting the most for his client, which must have Schuerholz concerned.

So what could Schuerholz expect to get in a trade if he decides to shop Boras? Well, again the market is going to be limited – due to Jones' 2007 contract and his future demands for his next deal. But perhaps we can look at a couple of circumstances the Braves were involved with to get some perspective on what a player like Jones might fetch in return.

Three winters ago, the Braves acquired Cardinals' outfielder J.D. Drew, who was a year away from free agency. The Braves traded their best pitching prospect (Adam Wainwright), a serviceable pitcher searching for a role (Jason Marquis), and a solid reliever (Ray King).

Then two winters ago the Braves got A's right-hander Tim Hudson, also a year away from free agency at the time. Atlanta traded its best pitching prospect (Dan Meyer), a serviceable pitcher seeking a role (Juan Cruz), and its starting left fielder (Charles Thomas). So in both deals the Braves gave up their best pitching prospect, and two decent major leaguers.

Okay, Jones is much better than either J.D. Drew or Tim Hudson, but his larger contract makes it difficult to get much more than what the Braves gave up in those other two trades. When teams acquire players with large contracts, they usually don't want to give up a whole lot. But we are talking about a player who is probably going to the Hall of Fame, which makes it very important for the Braves to get a premium price.

Back in late July, when the Red Sox called the Braves about Jones, Atlanta asked for Jon Lester (Boston's best young starting pitcher), Craig Hansen (Boston's top relief prospect), and CoCo Crisp (Boston's starting centerfielder). The Red Sox said no to that proposal, so is that a sign that the Braves are not going to be able to get a package of three players similar to what they had to give up for Drew and Hudson?

If the Braves trade Jones, they would have a chance to definitely upgrade the pitching, which is a priority this winter for John Schuerholz. So you would expect at least a heck of an arm coming back in return for Jones. Also, there's the fact that the team is going to have to replace Andruw, which won't be easy. So an outfielder in any Jones' deal would help as well.

But despite Jones' salary, any trade should bring back premium talent. Jones should cost a lot for any team to get him, and Schuerholz can afford to wait for a decent proposal. He doesn't have to deal Jones, and again there's no guarantee Jones will accept a trade. But the Braves' GM should be able to at least see what the market will bring without being under a gun to make a trade.

There are only a handful of teams that would fit the necessary criteria. In the National League, knowing it's unlikely the Braves would trade him inside the division, you would expect the Cubs, Cardinals, Astros, Dodgers, and Giants to be the teams that would fit. While in the American League, the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, and Angels could fit the bill. Earlier in the week in this article, we examined what some teams could possibly offer in a trade for Andruw Jones.

The decision that will have to be made on Jones could be one of the most crucial in the history of the Braves' franchise. If he's traded, and if in ten years Jones is finishing his career as one of the best players of all time, you do not want to look back and regret making the move. But there are so many circumstances involved in this decision that it's truly difficult to predict what will happen. However, if we get more comments from Scott Boras like we did this past week, it could possibly paint an even clearer picture that whether it's in a trade or next winter, Andruw Jones' chances of remaining with this franchise could be very slim.

And that makes the pending decision for John Schuerholz truly important.

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

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