KISSIMMEE, Fla. — An offseason of reflection hasn’t softened Chipper Jones’ stance.
The Atlanta Braves’ third baseman still says he will walk away from the game if he can’t bounce back from a disappointing 2008 season. Jones, who will turn 38 in April, said this week he won’t hang around just to collect a paycheck if he’s no longer playing up to the standards which have made him one of the best switch-hitters in history.
Some scoffed when Jones spoke last year of possible retirement after this season.
Count Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox among those who don’t believe Jones will walk away from two years and $28 million on his contract, which runs through 2012. He signed a three-year, $42 million extension last spring that includes an option for 2013.
“I never took them to heart at all,” said Cox this week of Jones’ comments. “He’ll play three more years and play them good.”
Jones’ frustration and talk of retirement came after seeing his batting average drop 100 points last year. He led the National League with his .364 average in 2008 but fell to .264 last season with 31 fewer hits in almost 50 more at-bats.
He said last year he won’t keep playing if he doesn’t return to form this season. He’s sticking with that stance this spring.
“It was a true statement,” Jones said. “If I don’t play this game at the level I want to play it at, then I will walk away from it.”
Most baffling to Jones was he couldn’t blame his decline — including slight dips in homers and RBIs — on injuries. He played in 143 games — his high mark since 2003 — and had 488 at-bats. He finished with career-low totals of 18 homers and 71 RBIs, down from 22 and 75 in 2008.
Jones’ hits, runs, homers and RBIs have declined two straight years. His 22 errors last season were his highest total since 25 in 2000.
“I’m not going to enjoy myself having years like I had last year,” he said. “There weren’t any injuries that were hindering me from producing last year.
“I’m not going to stick around and be a role player. I’m not going to play the game just to earn a check. I want to produce. I want to be good. That’s all there is to it.”
Jones started strong last season, hitting .322 in April and .312 in May. His average peaked at .335 on June 9. He hit only .230 the rest of the way and drove in only 30 runs after the All-Star break.
The 6-foot-4 Jones gained about 10 pounds, to 230, in hopes of improved stamina.
“I hit the weights hard,” he said. “I built some upper body strength.
“I was run down at the end of the year last year. I wanted to add a little extra weight, a little extra strength to make it through the summer.”
Jones also had too little support in the middle of the Braves’ power-depleted lineup last season, particularly when catcher Brian McCann rested. For the first time, McCann was the team’s primary cleanup hitter. McCann overcame vision problems to post solid numbers, but the Braves lacked other power threats.
Jones ranked fifth in the NL with 101 walks.
The Braves signed Troy Glaus to play first base. Glaus is projected as the new cleanup hitter, moving McCann back to the No. 5 spot. The lineup could receive another boost if top prospect Jason Heyward, whose long batting practice homers were the highlight of the first week of spring training, starts in right field.
“It’s a really good lineup. If we stay healthy it’s going to be an excellent lineup,” Jones said.
“I’m looking forward to being a part of it. Troy is going to be really good hitting in the middle. The lineup, one through eight, it looks pretty good.”
Jones, a six-time All-Star and the NL’s Most Valuable Player in 1999, already has strong Hall of Fame credentials.
His .307 career batting average ranks second all time among switch-hitters, trailing only Frankie Frisch (.316). He has 426 career homers, third among switch-hitters behind Mickey Mantle (536) and Eddie Murray (504).
No other switch-hitter has a career average of .300 or better and at least 300 homers.