Friday, December 19, 2014

Favorite Braves List - Center Field

(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
#4 Starter - Tom Glavine

Catcher - Brian McCann
First Base - Fred McGriff
Second Base - Marcus Giles
Shortstop - Andrelton Simmons
Third Base - Chipper Jones 
Left Field - Ryan Klesko

Honorable Mention: Obviously, Otis Nixon should get a little love for this catch. He might get a little more love if he followed this advice: Crack is whack. Marquis Grissom also made a cool catch. Michael Bourn stopped a long string of awful replacements to today's addition to the Favorites Squad.

Favorite Braves List - Center Field
Andruw Jones

Before there was Andrelton Simmons, there was Andruw. He was the guy we almost grew to expect a big thing to happen from nightly. Baseball players rarely have that that special factor to that demands our continuous attention. Baseball's all about the marathon season and the long haul, not that one moment. That's why it's not like football. When there is a special player, your eyes just focus on them expecting something big. Deion Sanders in his prime. Barry Sanders. Reggie Bush in college. Guys with such a gift rarely are like that in baseball, but Andruw, like Simmons now, had that special ability. It really didn't even become obvious to me until his last couple of seasons when it was pretty much gone. He was still as solid as any center fielder in the game, but more balls to the gap were dropping and more balls were getting over his head. Andruw was no longer special. No longer unique. No longer it.

Born in Willemsted, Curacao, Andruw was a legend long before he monopolized our attention on TBS. He was bigger than those older than him, faster than those leaner than him, and could hit the ball longer than most of the adults who had their jaws drop when they saw him. If he was a Dominican, he would have been the most highly sought after amateur free agent in a generation. Instead, he was from a little island that many teams didn't even scout. The Braves, though, were mining Curacao and Giovanni Viceisza, a businessman and part-time scout for the Braves, made one of the biggest signings in Braves history.

It didn't take long for the rest of baseball to drool at what the Braves had found. The Team of the 90's was ready to restock its major league squad with yet another weapon and Jones was rewarded back-to-back #1 spots in Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects in the Game for 1996 and 1997. Andruw possessed grace that truly was amazing to watch plus a natural smile that never seemed to leave his face. Opposing pitchers must have hated him.

By the end of 1996, he was already in the majors at the ripe old age of 19. While people his age were wondering what to have for dinner - Ramen or Mac & Cheese - Andruw was homering off Denny Neagle (as he did in his second major league game). Six games into his career, he already had a two-homer game. But it was the playoffs that made Andruw Jones the "next big thing." He was pretty quiet through the NLDS and NLCS, though he did homer in the 15-0 thumping the Braves put on the Cards in the deciding Game 7 of the NLCS. That quiet was shattered in Game 1 of the World Series in the House That Babe Ruth Built. He homered in each of his first two at-bats of the Series, becoming the youngest player to do so. Andruw was awesome in the Series, but sadly, the rest of the team wasn't.

Still not able to drink (legally), Andruw would spend 1997 as the fourth outfielder, sharing time in right and center field. It wasn't until 1998 that Andruw would become the starting center fielder for the Braves, a job he would hold until the end of 2007. He would post an OPS of .836 that season, homering 30 times and stealing 27 bases while earning his first of ten consecutive Gold Gloves. Only two outfielders, Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, have been awarded more Gold Gloves and they were pretty good.

While Andruw's defense was extraordinary and made his pitchers routinely look better than they actually were (and they were pretty damn awesome), his offense never seemed to deliver on the promise that his minor league stats and one night in Yankee Stadium indicated he was capable of. He was very, very good, but it seemed like an .839 OPS in 12 seasons with the Braves was a let down over what we expected. He routinely teased us with glimpses of what he could be. In 2000, when he was still just 23, Andruw went to his first All-Star Game while slashing .303/.366/.541. Publications were positive that he would finish his breakthrough with an even bigger season in 2001. I recall how for three or four years, every season preview The Sporting News put out had Andruw as the preseason MVP.

But it never happened. His OPS fell over a hundred points in 2001 and he would post just one more .900 OPS in his career.

His base stealing ability, which once allowed him to swipe 56 bases in the minors, was completely gone by 2002. His batting average ventured north of .270 just once after 2000. He did post a MVP runner-up season in 2005 when he belted 51 homers to pace the league and it's worth noting he had a solid follow-up campaign in 2006 with a near-.900 OPS.

Then...there was 2007. The pending free agent was probably gone no matter what, but when he slashed .222/.311/.413, he was really gone. What a crappy end to what should have been a long and productive career for the guy who was supposed to be the perennial MVP candidate and the NL's answer to Ken Griffey Jr. But maybe that's our fault. Maybe our expectations were always too high. Maybe it took having Andruw gone and the replacements like Josh Anderson, Nate McLouth, and Jordan Schafer coming through for us to realize what we lost. Even a lesser Andruw was preferable.

But without Atlanta, Andruw was worse, too. He washed out after one excruciatingly awful year with the Dodgers. After that, he transitioned into a backup role with the Rangers, White Sox, and Yankees while largely staying away from center field. Over the last two seasons, he has played in Japan, continuing his quest to be the Curacaoian version of the Three True Outcomes.

His time in Atlanta was exciting, special, frustrating, disappointing, and under-appreciated. His defense alone deserves recognition in Cooperstown. His off-the-field troubles are well documented and he was no saint, but six or seven times a week on TBS, he was one of the best things to watch. Granted, at the time, his competition was the Andy Griffith Show and WCW Saturday Night, but the point still stands.

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