Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Torre Could Be Facing Facts: Jones a Dodger Liability

During the baseball offseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed former Atlanta Braves slugger Andruw Jones to a two-year $36.2 million contact. Too bad they didn’t just hold on to that money. It would have made a nice donation to the poor devils in Burma and China beset by natural disasters. And the psychic return on that would have been considerably higher than the impact Jones has had on the Dodgers’ season thus far.

Jones supposedly has a sore knee and sat out last night’s game. But suddenly, with the subtraction of Jones and his .167 batting average (2 HRs, 7 RBIs), the Dodgers’ lineup is looking like it should have five weeks ago.

Manager Joe Torre kept mixing and matching his youngsters, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, in the outfield, bookending Jones in center. The kids have talent, and, in theory, this was an interesting experiment. The problem was it left Juan Pierre and his .301 lifetime batting average (and a $44M contract of his own) sitting on the bench.

Last night’s Dodgers lineup looked just right: Pierre in left (leading off), Kemp in center and Ethier in right. The trio was a combined 8-for-13 in the Dodgers’ 6-5 victory over the Reds. Kemp is hitting .320. Ethier .291. Pierre, finally getting playing time, raised his average to .286, and he’s got 17 stolen bases.

The Dodgers lack power, for sure—only 31 homers in 44 games. Jones was supposed to help resolve that problem. Only 31, and theoretically at the height of his powers, Jones in fact exhibited serious decline in 2007—of the kind that should have given the Dodgers’ brass pause.

Earning $14 million last year with the Braves, Jones’ batting average dropped 40 points to .222. His homer total droppped from 41 in ’06 to 26 in ’07. His RBIs fell from 129 to 94. His slugging percentage sagged .118 points.

Jones slumped badly in the latter half of last season and could never really fix whatever ailed him. Now, with even fatter Dodger dollars filling his coffers, Jones’ power numbers in ’08 project to 8 homers and 28 RBIs—for the entire season. And this with Torre sticking gamely with him, Jones having appeared in 42 games, more than any other outfielder.

For the sake of the team’s investment, and the sake of driving in runs, Torre has given Jones every opportunity to reestablish himself as a premier power producer. It hasn’t happened. And the minor miracle is that the Dodgers—without a single player with more than 5 home runs, and with primo shortstop Rafael Furcal and fragile Nomar Garciaparra dealing with nagging injuries—still hold a solid second place in the National League West, five games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Jones might be finished. When power guys suddenly lose it altogether, and can’t reclaim even a whiff of their production in a solid one-fourth of a season, it’s cause for serious concern. And speaking of whiffs, Jones has 44 of ’em, on pace for a season-long 160 or so. (This would top the 147 he had in 2004.)

The good news is that Torre may have found an outfield combo he can stick with. Power will remain a concern, but he’ll get hits, baserunners and runs scored from Pierre and the kids. If the pitching can hold up, the singles/doubles offense might be enough to remain in contention.

Meanwhile, sitting at the end of the bench, nursing a bum knee, is an extravagantly priced free-agent who all but defines what it means to put a big chunk of dough on a losing horse. Somebody in the Dodgers front office should have checked Jones out like a thoroughbred. His past performances weren’t good and certainly didn’t deserve such risky wagering.

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