We kick off our 2009 Atlanta Braves player profiles with the leader of the offense, Chipper Jones. It's not that hard to preview Chipper, the guy hit .364 last year and won the NL Batting Title. In his late 30's Chipper is not regressing as some players do, he is instead finding new ways to help the team as his body tries to remind him how old he is.
While Chipper was never a top-flight homerun hitter, the years when he could be expected to hit 30-plus homeruns are likely behind him. Chipper will probably tell you that he's never thought of himself as a homerun hitter, but more of a guy who hits for average, and as the years roll on that's exactly what he's becoming more and more like. But that's not a bad thing. Every lineup needs its professional hitters like Chipper... what we hope to get more of this year is more days when the lineup includes that professional hitter.
It seems like an inevitability each season that Jones will miss two or three or more weeks of games due to injury. The health problems and nagging injuries have been well chronicled with Chipper, so there's no real point of going into all the details. The thing we should keep in mind is that while he may be getting more brittle in his old age, he wants to play for several more years, and that drive and desire should push him to play through more injuries and condition himself to avoid old injuries from reoccurring.
All off-season we searched for a cleanup hitter to hit behind Chipper, but that hitter never materialized. Without that extra big bat, it makes the most sense for the Braves to bat Chipper fourth in the lineup. It may surprise many to learn that Chipper has played almost a fourth of his games batting cleanup, and his numbers hardly go down. In fact the 20-point drop in average (from .316 to .297) and the 30-point drop in slugging (from .557 to .528) from the third spot to the fourth spot could be a product of one bad year in 2004 hitting fourth and his last two years hitting third when he reached new career highs. The verdict should be that there is no drop-off in Chipper's production when he moves down one spot in the order.
We'll have to see where he plays, but my money is on Chipper hitting fourth as the steadying influce in a lineup that may find different hitters in the three-hole (Escobar, Johnson) and five-hole (McCann, Kotchman). One more reason for Braves fans to be excited about Chipper Jones this year, it's a contract year.