It’s been 17 years since the Braves have had to make a run to the playoffs without Chipper Jones as a fixture at third base. To get back there now, they’ll have to do it without him.
An MRI Thursday revealed Jones has a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and is facing season-ending surgery.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time, obviously for us, as well as he was playing,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said.
The 38-year-old Jones could also be facing the end of his career, something he was already mulling over anyway.
That’s not a decision he was prepared to make Thursday in the aftermath of the sudden news that he was out for the season, his agent B.B. Abbott said. Jones plans to address the media on Friday before the Braves open a four-game series with the Dodgers.
“He’s distraught,” Abbott said. “…Until he gets his arms around it, he knows it would be premature for him, or anybody else, to say definitively what he will do at this point. It’s a big, big decision. He can’t make it two hours after he finds out his season is over.”
Jones had said Wednesday in Houston, the day after he injured his knee making a dynamic play at third base, he would “have to consider” coming back next season from an extended rehabilitation.
“As we did when this all (retirement talk) started, we’ll wait until after the season to make those kinds of determinations and let Chipper decide what his future holds,” said Wren, who spoke to Jones briefly Thursday before flying back from Minneapolis where he attended the MLB owners’ meetings. “But I think he’s dedicated to rehabbing and getting ready for next year.”
Jones knows exactly what the six-month rehabilitation entails. He missed the entire season in 1994 in what would have been his rookie year after tearing the ACL in that same left knee in spring training. But that was when he was only 21, about to turn 22.
At age 38, while hitting only .228 in mid-June, Jones admitted he was leaning toward retirement, and met with the Braves to discuss his options, with two years and $28 million left on his contract.
But since word leaked of that meeting, Jones has been much better at the plate, hitting .307 with seven home runs in 44 games. For the season, he’s hitting .265 with 10 home runs and 46 RBIs in his usual No. 3 spot in the order.
“I told Chipper he was swinging as well as I’d ever seen him,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said Thursday. “He’s lowered his posture from the left-hand side and was just attacking the ball. That led me to believe he’d be leading us on. But not anymore.”
Jones injured his knee Tuesday night, jumping as he turned to throw across his body after fielding a ground ball up the third base line by the Astros’ Hunter Pence. Although he was in obvious pain, lying on the ground in foul territory, Jones was hopeful afterward that it wouldn’t be as bad this time around.
Jones said Tuesday night and Wednesday morning there wasn’t as much swelling as when he tore his ACL in 1994. He thought he might be able to avoid surgery and come back this year. But he found out otherwise Thursday morning when he was examined by Dr. Marvin Royster, the same Braves orthopedic surgeon who performed his operation in 1994.
“When we got the news this morning, actually, I was pretty shocked,” Wren said.
Now the Braves will likely turn to Brooks Conrad, Omar Infante and Martin Prado to fill the void. Prado isn’t likely to return from the disabled list with a broken pinky finger until early next week, Cox said. All three can play third base, as can Eric Hinske.
“When we get Martin Prado back, it’ll mean inserting two All-Stars into the lineup, he and Omar Infante,” Wren said. “So I’m not sure we’ll find anything better than that out on the market place.”
The Braves could still search out a third baseman through a waiver trade, but it gets harder, given how many players have already gone through waivers and been claimed or blocked, and given that teams ahead of the Braves can block moves knowing exactly what their needs are.
Troy Glaus, given the health of his legs, is not an option to play third base, Wren said. He also said Jones’ injury doesn’t necessarily expedite the call-up of first base prospect Freddie Freeman.
“It doesn’t really change our first base situation at all,” Wren said. “So I don’t think that really fits into the equation at this point in the season.”
The Braves, who led the Phillies by 2 ½ games in the NL East, pending Philadelphia’s game Thursday night against the Dodgers, are facing key injuries just when the Phillies are starting to get healthy.
In less than a week, the Braves suffered two potential season-ending injuries to both Jones and pitcher Kris Medlen, who has a partially torn elbow ligament and faces the prospect of surgery himself.
“When you look at our club and you think of the Atlanta Braves, the first guy you think of is Chipper Jones,” Wren said. “And his presence in the lineup has been increasing (given) his performance the last couple months. He was a force. We’re losing a lot.”
AJC columnist Mark Bradley contributed information to this report.