When Andruw Jones was 29 years old, he was firmly on his way to Cooperstown and had a shot at becoming one of the most statistically decorated center fielders in the history of baseball. Today, just two seasons later, he might be on his way out of baseball. Think about that for a second. He was in the middle of his prime and was definitely one of the better players in the league. Less than two years later, he's become a colossal failure for the Dodgers and no one else even wants him on their team.The Ascent
The kid came on the scene late in 1996 as a bright-eyed 19-year-old, and boy did he leave a lasting impression. He hit five home runs in just over 100 at-bats, and knocked three out of the park in the postseason. In the process, he became the youngest player to hit a World Series home run. Ever. He broke Mickey Mantle's record. All told, he hit .400 with a 1.250 OPS in the World Series. Again, he was only 19 years old.
The Braves brought him along slowly next season, as he played in 153 games but only totaled 455 plate appearances as a part-time starter. His ratio numbers remained low and he struck out a bunch, but you could see something special was lurking. He managed 18 home runs and 20 stolen bases in his part-time duty, for example.The Greatness
Beginning in 1998, when Jones was only 21, he started a nine-year stretch which was most certainly worthy of Cooperstown. In those nine seasons, he won nine Gold Gloves. He was constantly mentioned in the same breath as Willie Mays when discussing his range in center field. People said he was the best defensive center fielder of all-time. I've never seen anyone make diving catches seem so routine and look so effortless. Sure, there were times when he didn't hustle and was disciplined by his manager, Bobby Cox. More often than not, however, he just appeared lazy because he was so talented. Everything looked easy, and people mistook that for a lack of effort.
He was also durable, never playing in less than 154 games. He was a stalwart in the middle of the Braves lineup when they were busy winning the division title every single year. Until the last one in this nine-year stretch.
At the plate, Jones was building quite the resume as well. In this span, he racked up 891 runs, 319 home runs, and 940 RBI. That's an average of 35 home runs, 104 RBI, and 99 runs scored per season over nine years.
Let's be clear: Jones was never going to be Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez. He went to five All-Star games in these nine years, but he was never an elite player in the sense that he wouldn't often enter the "best player in baseball" discussion. If you step back and understand these types of numbers accumulated by this age, however, you must realize what he was going to end up with. We were looking at close to 600 home runs, a run at 3,000 hits (he had 1,441 through age 29), and a truckload of Gold Gloves. That is an absolute first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in any sense.The Descent
In 2007, Jones turned 30. That's hardly old by baseball standards, and he was playing for a new contract. Everyone with a brain thought he was in for a big year. He was coming off power seasons of (HR-RBI) 51-128 and 41-129. At his age -- which is usually smack-dab in the middle of an offensive player's prime -- in that Braves lineup, and the fact that he was playing for a huge payday, the recipe was right.
Instead, Jones putted along, compiling a modest .222/.311/.413 clip, which was good for an 88 OPS+. Yep, Andruw Jones was a below average hitter by 12 percent. He still hit 26 homers and drove 94 home, in addition to winning his 10th consecutive Gold Glove, but this wasn't what we were expecting as a contract-driven encore to the nine previous campaigns.The Debacle
Jones' value had taken a major hit, but he still received a quality contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers. For their money, they got nothing in return. Well, less than nothing. Not only did Jones not contribute to their NLCS run, he actually made them worse when he played. He was nothing short of pathetic. He actually got on base less times than he struck out (33 hits, 27 walks, 76 Ks). His OPS+ was 34, which means that he was 66 percent worse than the average hitter. He lost a ton of range in center, to the point that he became a defensive liability, and he hit only three home runs in 209 at-bats.Why?
There are three main schools of thought behind what happened to Jones.
1. He's simply fat. Yeah, he's way too pudgy to play a spry outfield at this point. I read something before last season where he claimed he was the same weight as he was before his 51-homer season. That may be true, but muscle weighs more than fat and is much more helpful when it comes to playing baseball. If he's losing muscle in favor of fat, that is a huge factor as to why he's not playing up to the lofty standards he set for himself during his 20s. Plus, just look at him. He is fat, when put in the context of what a 31-year-old athlete should be.
Still, there has to be more, right? I could see his defense and baserunning declining because of obesity, but he should still be able to hit the baseball out of the yard. Check out Cecil Fielder as an example.
2. He's lazy and doesn't care. If this is the case, it actually caused No. 1. It's a tough one to ignore, really. He was in Bobby Cox's doghouse on more than one occasion for not playing the game as hard as he could. I know some guys are more stoic than others, but sometimes -- watching Jones on the field -- he does seem really indifferent. It's one thing to be laid back overall, but even Pujols and Aramis Ramirez types show some emotion from time to time. Blatant emotionless behavior comes across as apathy.
I think we'd be doing a huge injustice to not just admit that he's lazy. You have a 31-year-old athlete who has allowed his body to fall into a pile of lard, when it was once a machine capable of ripping 51 home runs in a season. Any sort of a professional workout regimen would prevent that sort of body deterioration, unless he's secretly 55 years old and masquerading as a young buck.
3. He was on the proverbial "juice." Make no mistake about this "theory," I am definitely not on board with it. He's never been under scrutiny for using any type of performance-enhancing drugs, and he was not named in the Mitchell Report.
On the other hand, he really fell apart, in what should have been his prime, exactly when testing became strictly enforced and publicly reported. Also, if he was on the "juice" and stopped using, that would be one way to easily explain his body's transition from muscle to fat at such a young age. Is it a coincidence?
Really, it could even be all three combined which took Jones down. As I said above, I personally don't think he used. For once, I don't think there is more than meets the eye. I believe that he just got fat, and it happened because he's lazy. In turn, his game suffered greatly. Why did his hitting go away? Again, he's lazy. You stop working hard at hitting the little white ball in a precision sport, you'll stop being able to do it well. I will always stand by the opinion that hitting a baseball with great success is the most difficult thing to do in any sport. If you fail to do your job 65 percent of the time, you are considered a stud. That's how tough it is. And he quit working hard. Of course he sucks now.The Legacy
Hey, there's still time for him. He's not old, and could put together a comeback in no time. I'm not buying it -- I think he's done, for the record -- but he's not even completely out of the question as a Hall of Fame candidate. Seriously. Look at his similars (via baseball-reference) through age 31. Sammy Sosa, Johnny Bench, Ron Santo, Al Kaline, Dale Murphy, Carlos Beltran, Reggie Jackson, and Duke Snider are the top eight. Before he murdered his resume in the past two seasons, he was statistically most like Frank Robinson. Yes -- that Frank Robinson -- one of the best players in the history of baseball.
Hypothetically speaking, Jones could all of a sudden lose weight, grow a work ethic, learn some plate discipline, and piece together three to five more productive seasons. In that case, he'd absolutely be heading to Cooperstown.
Instead, he'll likely get one last chance in the bigs this season, and he's probably going to fail.
What a shame.