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Prospect Retrospective: Chipper Jones, 3B, Atlanta Braves

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Chipper Jones was drafted in the first round, first overall, in the 1990 draft out of high school in Jacksonville, Florida. Todd Van Poppel was considered the best player in the draft class that year by most experts, but his signability was unclear and his price-tag high, so the Braves went with the best player they could sign.

Jones excited scouts with his power potential, speed, and defensive ability. However, his pro debut did not go well: he hit just .229/.321/.271 in 140 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League. He showed no power and was frequently overmatched. It was an oddly weak showing in rookie ball for a player who was supposed to be fairly advanced. He didn't even make the Baseball America Top Ten prospects list for the GCL. Nowadays, I'd probably give a similar player a Grade B-, compromising between the tools that got him drafted but his inability to use them properly in his debut.

Any questions about Jones' bat were answered in 1991: he hit .326/.407/.518 in 473 at-bats for Low-A Macon, with 24 doubles, 11 triples, 15 homers, 40 steals, 69 walks, and 79 strikeouts. Scouting reports were outstanding, and his combination of power, speed, and plate discipline was special. Defense was another matter: he made 56 errors at shortstop and there was talk he would have to move to third base eventually, but he obviously had the bat to handle the position. He was rated the Number Two prospect in the Sally League by Baseball America, behind Rondell White. Jones would certainly have ranked as a Grade A- prospect at worst.

Jones began 1992 with High-A Durham, hitting .277/.353/.413 in 70 games. He moved up to Double-A Greenville for the second half and caught fire, hitting .346/.367/.594 with 17 doubles and 11 triples. He combined for 24 steals, 42 walks, and just 66 strikeouts in 530 at-bats on the season. He also cut his error rate dramatically, making 32 miscues and showing somewhat better range defensively. It was another good year with strong numbers and excellent scouting reports, and with the Double-A offensive outburst, I might have gone up to a straight Grade A.

Sent to Triple-A for 1993, Jones hit .325/.387/.500 with 31 doubles, 12 triples, 13 homers, 23 steals, 57 walks, and 70 strikeouts in 536 at-bats. He made his major league debut and went 2-for-3 in eight games. His shortstop defense still needed a lot of work, as he made 43 errors. Nevertheless, he was expected to take over in the major league lineup in 1994, probably in left field, and the bat looked terrific. He would still be a Grade A prospect.

It didn't happen: Jones tore an ACL in spring training and missed all of 1994. There were natural questions about how he would rebound in 1995, but it wasn't a problem: he hit .265/.353/.450 with 23 homers at age 23, beginning a career that would span for the next 17 years.

You know the story from here: eight All-Star appearances, 1999 MVP, consistent source of power, batting average, OBP, and run production, a career slash line of .304/.402/.532, OPS+ of 141. Despite his power, he never struck out 100 times in a year. His career WAR is 87.5.

His best seasons according to WAR were 1999 (7.7), 2008 (7.6), 2007 (7.4). He's had 12 seasons with a WAR of 4.0 or higher.

Among regular third basemen, Jones' 87.5 career WAR ranks seventh all-time, putting him right between George Brett (91.6) and Ron Santo (79.3) and a certain lock for the Hall of Fame.

Not bad for a guy who started off as an error-prone shortstop who couldn't hit rookie ball pitching.