Spring Training Preview: Third Base

We are a week away from pitchers and catchers reporting, so let's look at each position to see what we might see in spring training.

The Braves must get more production from third base this year, which means future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones must bounce back after a very tough 2009 season.

Jones' batting average dipped from a NL-leading .364 in 2008 to .264, his lowest mark since he hit .248 in 2004. But that season Jones hit 30 home runs, and those numbers have dropped every year since then as well.

Chipper hit only 18 home runs last season, his lowest total in his career. It was the first time Jones had not hit at least 20 home runs in a season.

Jones will be 38 on April 24, and it's very unusual for a person of his age to still be a regular at third base. But he has no plans to move to another position, and plans to stay at third for the remainder of his career.

His 2009 season was so subpar that Jones even talked about retiring if he does not bounce back this season with a more productive campaign. That tells you a lot about how poor a year it was for Jones.

Hopefully, the presence of a 'true' cleanup hitter in Troy Glaus will help Jones. Maybe he'll get better pitches to hit, and maybe he'll just simply have some support if Glaus proves quickly he's a legit home run threat.

Jones played in 143 games last season, the highest total for him since 2003. That was a good sign. But if playing in those additional games caused his stats to suffer, the Braves are going to have to find a way to rest Jones even if he is not injured at the time.

The addition of Eric Hinske should help a great deal. Hinske was brought in as the main backup for third and first base. Hinske can hit home runs, and while his batting average has really never been very high, he is a threat at the plate.

In an emergency, the Braves probably wouldn't be afraid to move Glaus back to third. He's played in 1336 games at the position in his career.

Omar Infante has filled in admirably at third when needed the last few seasons. Brooks Conrad and Joe Thurston, fighting it out for the final infield reserve spot, both have experience at third base.

And if the Braves need him there, starting second baseman Martin Prado could move over to third base. The same could be said for shortstop Yunel Escobar.

But what the Braves really need is a huge season from Chipper Jones. If he does not bounce back, the drama will then be around Cox. How long will he leave Jones in the three hole in the lineup if Chipper struggles? Let's hope that's not even something that is considered, and that instead Jones will have a more typical Chipper Jones season.

Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly column for The Macon Telegraph. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.

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