Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Favorite Braves List - Third Base

(Previous information on this series can be found here. Of importance, this is not a best list, but a favorites list since I started to follow the Braves. That limits options from 1991-to-now.)

Favorite Braves List (so far)
Ace Starter - Greg Maddux
#2 Starter - John Smoltz
#3 Starter - Tim Hudson
Catcher - Brian McCann
First Base - Fred McGriff
Second Base - Marcus Giles
Shortstop - Andrelton Simmons

Honorable Mentions - Really don't have one. Maybe Terry Pendleton, though it's not like there was much of a race here.

There are few positions that should be more slam-dunk than the starting third baseman on a team of Braves since 1991 and not just because the guy manned the position for the majority of those years. Chipper Jones was the Braves to many people. An eight-time All-Star who hit 468 career homeruns, #10 ranks high on many of the franchise records, including second in OPS to only the great Hank Aaron. While injuries would limit him over the twilight of his career, Chipper remained a tough out who challenged pitchers young and old.

Famously, the Braves selected Chipper with the first overall pick of the 1990 draft over Todd Van Poppel. The latter had made it clear that if the Braves took him, he would not sign with the perennial losers. Chipper, on the other hand, signed as soon as he was drafted, beginning a relationship that would remain continuous until his retirement following the 2012 season. More amazing to me that Chipper never played anywhere else is that he never even became a free agent.

In the minors, Chipper had little trouble, rocketing his way up the system in short work. He once stole 40 bases with Macon in 1991. He also committed 56 errors and there was concern that he would not be able to stick at shortstop. Nevertheless, he never moved around in his time in the minors, playing at shortstop the whole time, including an eight game cup of coffee to end the 1993 season in Atlanta.

After Ron Gant broke his leg in an ATV accident, the Braves had an opening for the young shortstop entering the 1994 season and moved him to left field. He looked like he would handle the position with ease, possibly sending other top prospect Ryan Klesko back to AAA for more seasoning. Instead, Chipper blew out his ACL trying to run out a grounder and would miss all of the strike-shortened 1994 season. Meanwhile, Klesko became a solid, if not underused, left fielder for the Braves.

With Pendleton leaving Atlanta, another spot was available for Chipper and he moved to third base to open the 1995 season. He quickly became a fixture of the Atlanta Brave offense, hitting .265/.353/.450 with 23 HR while finishing second in the Rookie of the Year balloting. He finished just 14 votes behind Hideo Nomo, though Nomo had already logged five seasons in Japan's major league. Still think that was a sham. Regardless, Chipper was especially good in the playoffs. The Reds couldn't keep him off base. Of the 19 times he came to the play, he was on base 10 times. In his career, Chipper would on-base .409 in 93 games in the postseason.

After his rookie season, Jones would refine his game over three All-Star worthy campaigns before his breakout season in 1999. Interestingly enough, he didn't go to the All-Star Game that year. Nevertheless, he set career highs with 45 homers, 25 steals, 126 walks, and a 1.074 OPS. He was good all season, but he turned it on down the stretch, hitting .328/.464/.693 in the second half and crushed the Mets with a 1.510 OPS and 7 homers in 12 games. He turned Shea Stadium into his home away from home, slashing .381/.500/.857 in six games there with 3 HR and 3 SB. For his production in 1999, Chipper took home the MVP award and his first of two Silver Sluggers.

Over the next four seasons, Chipper remained a fixture in the MVP race while posting an OPS of .920 or better in all four seasons before a tough 2004. In addition to missing his first significant portion of games, Chipper would hit a career-worst .248 and struck out more than he walked for the fist time since 1997. In addition, his .847 OPS was his lowest since his rookie season. The season was also notable for Chipper's move back to the hot corner. The Braves signed former farmhand and recent Colorado Rockie Vinny Castilla ahead of the 2002 season and Chipper willingly moved to left field. While Chipper was not much of a left-fielder, he was athletic enough to handle the position. However, in his troublesome 2004, he suffered an injury in April that put him on the DL and also suffered an injury on June 1st. He returned three days later as a pinch hitter and after another pinch hit performance, the Braves went through a six-day inter-league road trip that included Mark DeRosa's 11th error at third while Chipper DH'd the whole time. On June 15th, the Braves moved Chipper back to third and he would remain there for the rest of his career, save for DH starts and one crazy game.

While 2004 was a disappointing season, Jones would bounce back and OPS 1.015 over his next four seasons, including leading the league in OPS during 2007 with a 1.029 mark and earning his first batting title in 2008 as he hit .364 with a league-leading .470 OBP. Nevertheless, Jones missed at least 28 games in all four seasons, including over 50 games in 2005. Notably, in an aforementioned extra-innings crazy game against the Houston Astros on August 2nd, 2007, Jones would get a chance to go back to the position he once was a huge prospect at. After the Braves had already used shortstop-capable players Yunel Escobar and Chris Woodward as pinch hitters, shortstop Edgar Renteria came up lame on a grounder to shortstop in the 8th inning of a game the Braves were leading 9-5. Chipper moved to short, Willie Harris moved to third, and Matt Diaz checked in to play left. The next hitter, current pitcher/then outfielder Jason Lane hit a grounder to Harris that he threw wild. A Grand Slam followed to tie it up. Chipper would not field his first ball until a grounder ended the 11th, but Jones played error-free baseball from the 8th to the 14th innings until the Braves lost 12-11.

The final four seasons of Chipper's career included decreased production and more injuries, including an second torn ACL in 2010. He would miss Bobby Cox's final playoff run that season. While he did have notable moments over the final four seasons of his career, the .273/.372/.446 slash was not up to either his standards or the expectations of the Braves fans, who began to wonder what would happen when he finally decided to hang it up.

Heading into 2012, Chipper, who would turn 40 that April, announced his intention to retire following the season. He missed the start of the year with a nagging injury, but homered in his first game against the Astros. He would miss several games during the year, largely for rest purposes, though he did have a DL trip from May 23th to June 10th. One of his biggest moments of the season came on May 2nd. The Braves had trailed the visiting Phillies 6-0 entering the fifth and fought back to take an 8-6 lead. However, the bullpen couldn't hold it and gave up six runs over the next two innings before the Braves took a 13-12 lead in the bottom of the 8th with five runs. After a blow save sent the game to extras, Chipper sent everyone home happy with a two-run bomb in the 11th to cap off a wild 15-13 win.

Once a fixture in the third spot, Fredi Gonzalez moved around Chipper during the season, trying to find the right spot. Toward the end, he settled on the cleanup spot and Jones was hitting in that spot in the Wild Card Game. His error on what could have been a double play preceded the fourth inning three-run rally by the Cardinals that put them up 3-2. In his last at-bat, he would leg out an infield single in the 9th. However, the Braves would fall 6-3 with the help of a ridiculous infield fly call.

Chipper ranks second to the Real Homerun Champ in many categories in franchise history. In fact, the only category that is his alone is walks. While many can cite personal problems that have dogged and continue to dog Chipper, I won't do that here. This is about being my favorite third baseman and for many of the years Chipper stepped to the plate, there wasn't a guy you wanted up there more.

Have we done our daily thanks to Van Poppel for his refusal to sign with the Braves yet?

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