Reinvigorated Chipper coming along in rehab

Reinvigorated Chipper coming along in rehab

Reinvigorated Chipper coming along in rehab
ATLANTA -- As Chipper Jones navigated the crowded and still-icy Atlanta interstates to simply experience a couple rounds of batting practice at Turner Field on Friday, he certainly didn't seem apprehensive about his attempt to return from left ACL surgery for the second time in his career.

If Jones chose to walk away from baseball right now, he would at least avoid the possibility that he could realize the same fate as his former Braves teammates John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, who are among the many great professional athletes who have seen their careers end in unflattering fashion.

Since having his ACL surgically repaired in August, Jones has had plenty of time to think about this possibility. At the same time, the Braves' veteran third baseman has had plenty of time to think about the frustration he felt this past summer when he was a bystander as his teammates experienced the jubilation created by a postseason berth.

"Everything that goes along with pro baseball you can do without from time to time," Jones said. "But there's nothing that can replace running out between those lines and competing and doing things to help your club win."

As the Braves attempt to earn a second straight postseason berth, they find themselves encouraged that Jason Heyward will be a year older and now a member of a lineup that includes Dan Uggla's power. But the true X-factor in this equation could prove to be Jones, who will seemingly get the opportunity to prove that he can indeed continue serving as a productive three-hole hitter.

While hitting .265 with an .813 OPS over the past two seasons, Jones hasn't looked like a three-hole hitter or the beast that he was when he hit .342 with a 1.027 OPS from 2006-08.

"One of the things that has concerned me over the past year-plus is the fact that the ball isn't coming off the bat the way I want it to, and it's not because I'm old," Jones said. "It's because I'm doing something fundamentally that's not right.

"Right-handed, the ball is still coming off the bat the way that it should. Left-handed, it's just a little different. There are just a couple of tweaks that I've tried to make over the offseason that have really taken flight."

While working out in his basement over the past couple of months, Jones believes he might have tinkered with his swing in the mirror enough to make the necessary mechanical adjustment. It will be a couple months before the veteran truly understands where he stands from an offensive standpoint.

But while spending the past two days routinely centering the pitches being thrown by Braves baseball systems operator Alan Butts, Jones has given himself reason to be encouraged by where his swing stands after taking batting practice just three times this year.

"My hand-eye coordination is a lot better than I thought it would be," Jones said. "From just a purely baseball standpoint, I can't ever remember a first two or three sessions that were ever better. Just centering balls from both sides of the plate, hitting the ball the other way, being balanced and whatnot. ... Maybe a six-month vacation was just what the body needed."

While there's not reason to get overly excited about what transpires in an indoor batting cage in the middle of January, Jones did provide reasons to be impressed as he handled the bat and allowed it to make that unique sound reserved only for the sweetest of swings.

"I certainly realize that my days are numbered and I'm close to the end. But as I sit here right now, I'm under contract for 2011, and I'm excited about the challenges ahead of us."

-- Chipper Jones

More importantly, there wasn't a hint of hesitance whenever he attempted to turn on a pitch from either the right or left side of the plate.

Braves general manager Frank Wren watched Jones take batting practice and walked away believing his veteran third baseman was much further along than he would have envisioned with a month remaining before Spring Training.

"People are coming in here and watching to see if the knee is sound," Jones said. "I'm not coming in here just to see if the knee is sound. I'm coming in here to get my mechanics right so that I can start rolling come April. I'm not worried about the offense. I'm fairly certain that I'll be sound offensively. But that's only a third of the game."

Because he ended the 2010 season on the disabled list, Jones will be able to begin official on-field workouts when Braves pitchers and catchers hold their first workout of the year on Feb. 15 at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.

As things stand, Jones believes that will be the first time that he begins testing his knee from a defensive perspective. While ranging to his left will be important, he seems quite eager to see how he feels once he ranges to his right like he did on the night of Aug. 10, when he suffered the knee injury while leaping and making a pinpoint throw in Houston.

Once Jones proves that he can move laterally and make the straight-leg throws often necessary after charging a ball, he'll tell manager Fredi Gonzalez that he's ready to begin playing games. But until he feels he can pass all of the tests in confident fashion, he doesn't even want to put himself in position for a potential setback.

"The last thing I want to do is get gun-shy and put a ball in my pocket," Jones said. "I don't want to put a ball in my pocket one time for fear that I'll reinjure myself. Then all of the sudden everybody will be saying, 'He can't do it.' I don't want to hear that I can't make a play. I want to make sure that my mobility is there and that the injury is long gone from being a problem mentally."

From a physical standpoint, Jones feels much different than he did as recently as November, when the knee didn't react kindly to increased demands.

From a mental standpoint, Jones appears to be miles away from where he stood in June, when he was so frustrated by his play that he told the Braves that he would likely retire at the end of the 2010 season.

Jones' mindset changed as he proved more productive in the two months leading up to the knee injury. Now five months removed from a surgical procedure that could have ended his career, he no longer seems to be even thinking about retirement.

In fact with Spring Training quickly approaching, a recharged Jones isn't allowing himself to even think about the possibility that this could be his final season.

"I'm certainly not coming into Spring Training saying this is my last year," Jones said. "I think some of the enthusiasm would be dimmed. I've said all along that as long as I'm producing and helping this team win, I want to play. It's when I'm not playing well and my body isn't allowing me to play well that it gets discouraging.

"I certainly realize that my days are numbered and I'm close to the end. But as I sit here right now, I'm under contract for 2011, and I'm excited about the challenges ahead of us."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.