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Jonesin' for a Fit?

Even a supersized Andruw Jones could have his uses in a bench role (AP).

The latest word on the snow-covered street is that the Yankees have an interest in Andruw Jones for a bench role. The going-on-34-year-old, who spent last season with the White Sox, would primarily spell Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson against lefties.

Provided he comes cheap, it's not the worst idea in the world, but Andruw Jones circa 2011 is a very different beast from the Andruw Jones most of us remember, particularly if you're a Yankee fan still haunted by the two homers he hit as a 19-year-old in the 1996 World Series. To borrow a line from the old Willie Dixon blues standard, this Jones is built for comfort, he ain't built for speed.

Through 2006, Jones looked for all the world like he was headed straight to Cooperstown. Through 10 full seasons and change with the Braves, he'd hit 342 home runs while compiling a .267/.345/.505 line, 92 of those homers over the previous two seasons. He'd also won nine straight Gold Gloves, and had been worth an average of 5.8 WARP, including 17 runs above average with the leather per year. With one more year before free agency, he looked as though he was going to make a mint.

Jones slumped in 2007, hitting just .222/.311/.413 with 26 homers, though with above-average defense he was still worth 3.0 WARP. Still, he didn't have nearly as much momentum going into free agency as he would have had the year before, but he was able to save face by signing a two-year, $36.2 million deal with the Dodgers. Then the wheels fell off, the axle dropped through the driveway, subterranean weasels crept up out of the earth and into the chassis, gnawing through the cables, and turning Jones into a has-been overnight. Here's what I wrote about him for Baseball Prospectus 2009, after he'd hit an appalling .158/.256/.249 in 238 plate appearances, enough to make him the NL's Least Valuable Player:

Even amid a career-worst season in 2007, Jones retained some value thanks to his defense, and power and patience at the plate. Given that he’d played through a hyperextended elbow, his odds of rebounding appeared strong, and his two-year, $36.2 million Dodger deal seemed a low-risk proposition. Alas, Jones arrived at Vero Beach tipping the scales at 240 pounds or so, started the regular season horribly, and missed six weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee — from a hitting standpoint, the all-important back knee. Defying the odds, Jones' hitting declined upon returning until continued knee soreness and a case of Mannymania sent him to the DL again in mid-August; he played just one more game. There’s nothing to take from his splits that offers promise: he didn’t hit against lefties, righties, at home, on the road, in a box, with a fox, in a house, or with a mouse. The Dodgers still owe Jones $22.1 million via his heavily back-loaded contract, and how they’ll make him disappear remains as great a mystery as how a seemingly Cooperstown-bound 31-year-old center fielder could fall so far so fast.

Desperate to make him go away, the Dodgers reworked Jones' contract, deferring $12 million over six years and eating the rest. Such deferrals for ex-Dodgers are a favorite pastime of GM Ned Colletti, who's still paying Juan Pierre and Manny Ramirez as well; the trio will receive about $31 million over the coming four seasons.

In any event, Jones has since recovered a bit of his form while spending 2009 with the Rangers and 2010 with the White Sox, hitting a combined .222/.332/.472 with 36 homers in 659 plate appearances while making just $1 million in base salary beyond what the Dodgers are paying him. After playing just 17 games in the outfield in 2009, he mad 89 appearances last year, mostly in right field, with a smattering of left and center (12-17-62 is the left-to-right breakdown). He accumulated four FRAA for his troubles last year, along with a .285 True Average. By comparison, Austin Kearns was worth 11 FRAA with a .276 True Average between Cleveland and the Bronx, and he can still fit into the pants he wore five years ago.

Jones hit a robust .256/.373/.558 against lefties last year, but that was just 102 plate appearances, a tiny sample size. Over the last four years — decline-era Andruw, in other words — in 556 plate appearances, he's hit .222/.347/.435 against lefties, which is a lot less to get excited about, though it's far better than his showing versus righties (.207/.292/.400) and it beats the snot out of what Granderson (.210/.269/.321 in 665 PA) and Gardner (.248/.352/.339 in 243 PA) have done against southpaws during the same timespan. Sure, Granderson's reworked swing may pay some improved dividends against lefties, but as an insurance policy in case it doesn't, Jones would seem to fit quite well. And despite his supersizedness, he was 9-for-11 in steals last year

As for Cooperstown, Jones now has 61.6 career WARP and 46.6 peak WARP, for a JAWS score of 54.1, not all that far off center field standard among Hall of Famers (66.9/44.6/55.7). However, unless Jones can sustain a longer rebound, it's going to take more for future voters to overcome the memory of his late-career fade than it did for the just-elected Roberto Alomar, whose last three years were lousy but who still finished with 2,724 hits. Jones only has about two-thirds of that total (1,840), so he's still got significant work to do on that front, particularly since the writers haven't elected a player with less than 2,000 hits whose career took place after 1960.

That's a long-term problem for Jones, but not necessarily the Yankees. For them, the important point is that he appears capable of solving their short-term problem, a fourth outfielder who complements their current stable at an affordable price.