Jones deal gives Dodgers bargaining chip

Steve Henson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It was like a player seated in the dugout for eight innings who grabs a bat and belts a home run in the ninth. Shades of Kirk Gibson, circa 1988.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, all but comatose for the first 73 hours of the winter meetings, came to a preliminary agreement with free-agent center fielder Andruw Jones on an oddly structured two-year, $36.2 million contract early Thursday morning. Jones will take a physical early next week and an official announcement of the signing should come shortly thereafter.

The deal provides the Dodgers with the big bat in the middle of the lineup they sorely need – provided Jones' skills aren't prematurely declining and he rebounds to his pre-2007 form. The 30-year-old right-handed hitter had 368 home runs and 1,117 RBIs in 12 seasons with the Atlanta Braves, including 51 home runs in 2005.

But last season he slipped to .222 with 26 home runs, a protracted slump that undoubtedly cost him untold millions of dollars and the long-term contract he initially sought. It became clear in recent days that no team was willing to commit to more than three years, and a source close to Jones said he chose the Dodgers because he wanted to remain in the National League, wanted to play for a contender and would be re-united with his close friend Rafael Furcal, the Dodgers shortstop who also began his career with the Braves.

The Dodgers scouted Jones extensively and had new batting coach Don Mattingly watch video of the power hitter before making him an offer. Mattingly and others in the organization believe Jones' problems last season are correctable.

"We still see him as a great player," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "Some people say he's not the same player he was five years ago. We'll find out if he is or isn't. He's probably still the best center fielder in the National League.

"In what was an off-year, he had power numbers some players would look at as a career year. He has talent and desire to play all the time. We put his spray chart on an overlay of Dodger Stadium and it looked fine to me. A lot of balls landed over the fence."

Jones will get a $12.2 million signing bonus, of which $5 million isn't payable until 2010, according to a source close to the negotiations. He will be paid $5.1 million of the bonus in 2008 and $2.1 million in 2009. His salaries will be $9 million next year and $15 million in 2009, and the contract includes a no-trade clause.

Although the contract is less than Jones anticipated when the offseason began, his average annual salary of $18.1 million is the highest ever for a Dodgers player and the fifth-highest in baseball history behind Alex Rodriguez's last two contracts and deals for Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez and Roger Clemens. And perhaps it is no coincidence that $18.1 is $100,000 more per year than center fielder Torii Hunter received from the Los Angeles Angels in his five-year, $90-million contract Nov. 21. Jones made $13.5 million last year with the Braves when he completed a six-year, $75-million deal.

Colletti has been reluctant to give contracts beyond three years, and was burned last year in the one instance he did so. Juan Pierre's five-year, $45 million deal was widely panned, and one year later Jones will take Pierre's job in center field. A Dodgers source said that if the season began today, Pierre would compete with Andre Ethier for playing time in left field. Matt Kemp and Ethier would be penciled into right field.

Another option is to trade an outfielder, but a source said that Kemp is not expected to be dealt despite the widespread interest in him throughout baseball. Colletti has shopped Pierre, but hasn't had any takers. Although Colletti said that Johan Santana is still out of reach, the Dodgers have increased their flexibility to come up with a package that might fetch a premier pitcher such as Erik Bedard of the Baltimore Orioles or Dan Haren of the Oakland A's.

"This deal makes our quest for starting pitching even more focused and more possible," Colletti said.

First, though, the Dodgers are trying to sign Japanese starter Hiroki Kuroda, who wants a four-year, $40 million deal and also is being pursued by the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks, among others.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the deal is that it meant Colletti and Jones' agent, Scott Boras, are back on speaking terms. Colletti was incensed a year ago when outfielder and Boras client J.D. Drew opted out of the last two years of his contract, and the Dodgers did not try to re-sign two pitchers represented by Boras, Greg Maddux or Eric Gagne. The Dodgers and Boras also butted heads last season when another client, second baseman Tony Abreu, insisted he was injured and should go onto the major league disabled list rather than accept a demotion to Triple-A, which would have cost him several thousand dollars.

Colletti has often said that he and Boras would patch up their differences when the time came for the Dodgers to sign one of his clients. For his part, Boras has maintained that he has no ill feelings toward Colletti or the Dodgers. He represents Dodgers starter Derek Lowe in addition to Abreu.

Boras and Jones met with Colletti and Dodgers owner Frank Mccourt at Dodger Stadium recently after it was clear Jones would not get the long-term, $100-million deal he initially sought. Boras realized the best alternative was very short contract that would allow his client to explore free agency again in two years. By then, Jones could be well beyond 400 home runs and will be only 32. The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals were the only other teams to express strong interest in signing Jones, and neither team is expected to contend for a playoff berth.

In addition to his offensive credentials, Jones is a winner of 10 consecutive Gold Glove awards who has 101 career assists and led National League outfielders in putouts last year with 396. Scouts said his range appeared to decline in 2005 and 2006, but he rebounded so well that sabermatrician and fielding expert John Dewan said in the 2008 Bill James Handbook, "perhaps we should crown (Jones) 'Comeback Fielder of the Year.' "

Jones, a native of Curacao, broke into the major leagues at 19 in 1996 and that year became the youngest player to homer in the World Series. He has played in at least 153 games in 11 consecutive seasons, has driven in more than 100 runs five times and belted more than 30 homers in seven seasons.

The signing leaves Aaron Rowand as the only premier center fielder remaining on the free-agent market, although Mike Cameron, Milton Bradley and Corey Patterson are also available.