Braves general manager Frank Wren sounds confident that Chipper Jones could be ready to join new slugging second baseman Dan Uggla in the opening day lineup.
Jones is recovering from August knee surgery, and the Braves are hopeful the veteran third baseman will be ready to go when spring training begins in six weeks.
“I think he’s progressed very well,” Wren said. “He had a setback earlier in the winter when he was away for a week — I think he was actually on a hunting trip – and he was not doing the [leg] lifts. But as soon as he got back on his weights, he was fine.
“Right now, talking to the trainers, he should not have any restrictions coming into spring training.”
Jones, who’ll be 39 in April, had surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee – the same injury — same knee, same surgery — he had more than 16 years ago as a rookie at the end of spring training, which wiped out an entire season.
He’s a lot older now, but surgery techniques have improved and rehab times have been reduced.
If he’s not ready, the Braves plan to move Martin Prado from left field to third and fill left field with players in the organization – Joe Mather, Eric Hinske are among options – or make a trade between now and opening day.
Wren said the Braves continue to explore options for backup outfielders and middle infielders, but would also be comfortable with what they have going into spring training. He said if the team played a game tomorrow, Jordan Schafer would probably be the backup center fielder behind Nate McLouth.
Schafer was the opening day center fielder in 2009, but has missed much of two seasons after breaking a bone in his hand in the 2009 home opener and eventually having surgery that summer. Schafer has been hitting since October and said it’s the first time he’s felt strong and pain-free since the injury.
“We talk every day about guys that are out there,” Wren said, speaking in general about the teams’ ongoing discussions with other clubs. “We get calls every day, and consider different possibilities. I don’t think there’s any big things we’re looking at; it’s all small pieces that might, in some way, fit together in spring training.
“We might not even see the real fit today, but say if this happens and this happens, this guy might be a real good fit on the team. So you start making some of those contingency plans and start protecting yourself with some of the signings from here on out….
“If something drastic happens in the spring, then maybe we’re looking at a different situation. But right now, we like the way our team sets up.”
The Braves would like to have more depth at center field and also the middle infield, where backup options currently are led by Diory Hernandez, Brooks Conrad and six-year minor league free agent Ed Lucas from the Royals.
“There’s always [trade] possibilities,” Wren said. “We don’t have to do anything. So if we find the right match and the right situation, we’ll do something. But we don’t have to do anything.”
Wren said Prado has fully recovered from a September hip pointer and groin pull and should be ready for full activities when spring training begins. The Braves hope that Jones will be, too, but are more concerned with getting the veteran ready before opening day.
“Every discussion I’ve had with [Jones] and the trainers have had with him, is that things are moving along positively,” Wren said. “If we have to make some adjustments, we have a guy that’s a really good third baseman, Martin Prado, and we can put the team together in different ways. We have flexibility.”
Still, they hope it’s Jones at third base.
“He’s a big part of the lineup, no question,” Wren said. “He’s not the Chipper Jones of his MVP year in ‘99, we know that. But he makes a difference, and we saw that in August and September after we lost him.”
Kawakami update: Wren continues looking for the right trade proposal for starting pitcher Kenshin Kawakami, who is owed $6.7 million in the final year of his contract and does not have a spot in the Braves’ rotation plans. Wren said that two or three major league teams have offered to pay more than$2 million of what Kawakami is owed, but the Braves are not willing to trade him just to dump whatever part of his salary they can.
With at least seven or eight teams still needing starting pitchers and few remaining unsigned free-agent options, the Braves seem confident they will be able to trade Kawakami to a team willing to pay a larger portion of his salary.