By Eric Neel
Page 2

"Andruw Jones for MVP." It started out as a grassroots rumor. Then it was a buzz. Now it's all the rage. Everywhere you go, every game you tune into, somebody's talking about it.

So what is it that makes Mr. Jones so appealing? And when it gets down to it, should he be the man?

Here now, a brief deconstruction:

Part One: Five reasons Andruw Jones looks like the guy

Andruw Jones
Andruw Jones has had his best year ever at the plate.

1. He's surging. Two home runs Sunday against the Nationals. The big 10th-inning walk-off on Sept. 1, on a 1-2 pitch from Luis Ayala after the Braves' pen had given up a late lead. Six home runs and 13 RBI so far in September; 22 home runs and 54 RBI since the All-Star break. We love moments and momentum, and he's delivering both. And many of us are watching more games as the season winds down, so every good thing we see him do seems bathed in the light of glory and sprung from the roots of legend. He's not just a ballplayer to us now. He's a phenomenon.

2. We've been waiting on him. He's only 28, but this is Jones' 10th year in the big leagues. And ever since he went deep twice in Game 1 of the '96 World Series, we've been watching and wanting more. For 10 years, the word has been that this guy is a Hall of Fame talent, not just with the glove (which he has shown all along) but with the bat, too. There have been strong seasons along the way (.303/.366/.541 in 2000; 36 home runs and 116 RBI in 2003), but there also has always been a sense that the best of Andruw Jones was still lurking out there, waiting to come ashore. (Our man Bomani Jones wrote about this just the other day.) And now, with the numbers he has put up so far in 2005, there's a feeling that destiny has been fulfilled, that we're finally witnessing Jones making the jump from very good to great.

3. The numbers are strong, and the traditional numbers are very strong. I know Mr. Gammons is down with OPS these days, but, for a lot of folks, an awards race debate still gravitates toward the old standby measurements. And Jones has a sizable lead over his nearest competitors in both home runs (49, compared with Derrek Lee's 41) and RBI (121, compared with Albert Pujols' 108). Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle, whose work I greatly respect, speaks for the masses when he writes things like: "His raw numbers probably make the balloting simple. He's first in the NL in home runs, first in RBIs and third in slugging." And that's the appeal of Jones' candidacy: the simplicity of it. If you deal in the familiar numbers, he seems the obvious choice.

4. He plays a mighty fine center field. Chipper Jones says he's "the best ever." Derrek Lee says "he saves a run or more a game." Hyperbole aside, at one time Jones was a truly spectacular center fielder, capable of the most elegant, graceful sorts of catches on the run. My friend Rob Neyer pointed out Monday that that time has likely come and gone (check the lower stolen base totals the last couple of years and the zone ratings this year). But that's neither here nor there. The thing is, it's center field we're talking about. It's a position where we can see good defense make a difference in dramatic ways. When Jones dived for a dying looper off the bat of the Mets' Jose Reyes on Sept. 5, somehow picking it off the grass like an entomologist holding the wings of a butterfly even as he's tumbling and rolling over like a rhino in the savanna dust -- well, we're blown away. And when he puts up big offensive numbers, we automatically, almost unconsciously, imbue those numbers with our love of what he does with his glove.

5. He's the hip choice. Nobody figured the Braves to be back in it this year, and nobody figured Andruw Jones for an MVP-caliber season coming off what he did last year. Neither was beyond the realm of possibility -- but both were long shots. Throw in injuries to Chipper Jones and Mike Hampton, and failed campaigns from Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan, and you have a guy in Jones who looks like both the dark horse and the stalwart. That's a whole lot of mojo, and a whole lot of watercooler buzz -- making Jones a candidate who just feels right, a guy who appeals in a quasi-emotional way to fans and voters alike.

Part Two: Five reasons he shouldn't be the guy

Andruw Jones
And his great glove makes his offensive numbers look even better.

1. Derek Lee. The Cubs are busting a gut just to finish .500, so we've forgotten about Mr. Lee. But that ain't right. He doesn't write paychecks to Corey Patterson, Jerry Hairston and Neifi Perez. So why punish him? Check his numbers. Yeah, the Triple Crown thing is lost, but let's not lose sight of how outrageously good he has been. Put his .338/.419/.665 up against Jones' .275/.359/.609. That's a shutout, folks.

2. Albert Pujols. First he was punished for not being Barry Bonds, and now he's undervalued because he's too consistently good and plays on a team running away with its division. The fact that Pujols isn't crushing Jones (34 Win Shares to 22 right now) in the popular vote, the fact that Jones -- good as he is -- is even mentioned in the same breath as Pujols, is testimony to the fact that the Number-One-Big-Enchilada of story line factors is: Does the story run counter to expectations? Lee had that going for a while, but he got derailed by the Number-Two-Ain't-Gonna-Be-No-Andre-Dawson-Repeat story line determinant: Is your club winning? If Pujols is a Brave, we're not even talking. If he's a Brave, he's not just the runaway choice for MVP, he's the public's overwhelming choice to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the Supreme Court.

3. He has had help. "He's carrying that team by himself," said both Vinny Castilla and Ken Griffey Jr. last week. And they're just the latest. It's conventional wisdom now. It's a given. Only problem is, it isn't true. It's a team thing in Atlanta. Though Jones has been very strong in the second half of the season, the idea that the Braves' division-title run is all his doing just doesn't hold water. It doesn't take into account the contributions of Marcus Giles (24 Win Shares), who leads the team in runs … Chipper Jones, who's got 10 home runs, 36 RBI and an OPS of 1.048 since the All-Star Break … Rafael Furcal, who's stolen 40 bases on the season and posted a .316/.392/.461 line in the second half … and Jeff Francoeur, who, in addition to hitting a ton since his call-up, has 11 assists in 49 games started.

4. There are some chinks in the armor. The on-base percentage isn't weak, but it's 50 and 70 points lower than Lee and Pujols respectively. That's a problem. Jones has managed only three stolen bases (while Lee and Pujols have 15 apiece) and attempted only six all year long. That's a problem. He's hitting just .275 (the last MVP to hit under .300 was Kevin Mitchell, and he had the gold tooth thing working as compensation). That's a problem. Yes, he's hitting a league-leading .304 in "close and late" situations, but he's managing just .222 with runners in scoring position (compared with Lee's .342 and Pujols' .336). That's a problem. You do everything anyone ever tells you to do. That's a problem! (Sorry, temporary case of "Breakfast Club" Ally Sheedy there.)

5. What about Roger? Now that Carpenter, with his 21 wins, is likely to win the Cy Young, shouldn't we be talking about Clemens and his angels-on-a-pinhead ERA, for a club that scores runs about once a week, before we talk about Andruw and his home runs? Is this crazy talk? I don't think so. Dennis Eckersley won one. Vida Blue won one. For criminy sakes, Willie Hernandez won one. And in fact, Clemens himself won the award in 1986. So why not bookend him? With 171 strikeouts in 192 innings, a WHIP of 0.96 and a 1.78 ERA (featuring an even 1.00 on the road), he's arguably just as deserving now as he was then (238 strikeouts in 254 innings, 0.97 WHIP and a 2.48 ERA).

All right, that's it.


Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.


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