LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - It didn't surprise many people when Andruw Jones won his arbitration case.
Much to their financial chagrin, the Atlanta Braves discovered it was nearly impossible to counter agent Scott Boras' argument that the All-Star center fielder is one of the game's best players and should be paid accordingly.
The Braves had no evidence to contradict him. Jones put up MVP-caliber numbers last year, becoming the second Brave to post three straight 20-20 seasons, while winning a third straight Gold Glove and being named to his first All-Star team.
If Boras needs a quote to use against the Braves in next year's arbitration hearing, he can use hitting coach Merv Rettenmund's assessment of Jones.
"I know a lot of people say, `wow, what a year,' but barring injury, Andruw should have that kind of year or better the rest of his career," Rettenmund said. "He should think about being one of the premier hitters in the game."
All Jones did in his fourth full season was post career highs in average (.303), home runs (36), RBI (104), runs (122), hits (199) and doubles (36). That was enough to earn him an eighth-place finish in MVP voting and a $8.2 million arbitration award, a 122 percent boost in pay.
Under Rettenmund's tutelage, Jones, who won't turn 24 until April, became more selective at the plate and focused on hitting the ball through the middle, rather than trying to pull every pitch. He still reached triple figures in strikeouts (100) for a fourth straight year, but he averaged a strikeout every 6.5 at-bats, compared with one every 4.6 at-bats during his first three seasons.
"I hit deeper into counts," Jones said. "I learned it's not always the first pitch you have to hit. That helped a lot. I'm going to try it again this season."
Jones' responsibilities will increase this season if manager Bobby Cox shuffles the lineup. It's likely he'll move to either No. 3 or No. 5, upping the RBI possibilities for a hitter who batted .277 with runners in scoring position last season.
"If everything goes right for him, he should be in the top 10 in certain categories - on-base percentage, RBI and batting average," Rettenmund said. "But I don't know if he sees himself that way."
Though Jones put up outstanding numbers last year, most observers say he hasn't fulfilled his potential. If not for a five-week home run drought last summer, he probably would have topped 40. He fell off following the All-Star break, hitting .294 with only 13 homers, and, surprisingly, hit 15 points lower at home than on the road.
Jones, who made his big league debut at age 19 and became the fifth-fastest player in major league history to reach 100 home runs last year, still is learning his capabilities.
"He's still learning offensively," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Defensively, I think he's at the higher end of the spectrum. Offensively, he's capable of doing a lot more. You throw him into an RBI slot in the lineup and there's no telling what he might do."
Andruw Jones didn't rest on last year's numbers for long. After taking a break in his native Curacao, he returned to the indoor batting cage at Turner Field in early January and was there every day working on his swing.
"He was always at the ballpark," Cox said. "I don't think I was ever down there when he wasn't there. You work that hard, you're going to continue to improve."
The results soon will be evident. Jones is bigger and stronger this spring, but, more importantly, he's a smarter hitter. If he doesn't give away at-bats by chasing pitches outside the zone, he'll put up the sort of numbers that have been forecast for him since former scouting director Paul Snyder likened him to home-run king Hank Aaron.
"I know I'm not a great hitter," Jones said. "I've got to keep learning. But, if I can keep healthy and trust my instincts as a hitter, I'll keep getting better."
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