Andruw is No. 1 to Cox
Skipper ranks veteran as top defensive player of past 50 years
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When Braves manager Bobby Cox awoke at Walt Disney's Swan and Dolphin Resort on Wednesday morning, one of his first tasks was to rank the top 50 defensive players of the past 50 years.
Without much surprise, he put Andruw Jones at the top of this list that has been devised by Rawlings, the company that has sponsored each of the nine consecutive Gold Glove Awards that the Braves center fielder has captured.
"I picked 18 outfielders out of hundreds," Cox said. "But I thought he was No. 1."
Through the dedication he's showed by playing every day, Jones has become one of the game's most complete players and a definite favorite of Cox. Thus, the Braves skipper isn't too fond of the fact that this could be the center fielder's final season in Atlanta.
"He's a free agent after this year and we would try to sign him," Cox said. "We know what's out there right now with some of these signings, and it's enormous. But we will make every effort to try to sign Andruw. He does have a tough agent in Scott [Boras], who is willing to take players other places.
"But, yeah, we'd like for Andruw to play another four or five years with us, for sure."
Although Jones' name has been linked to a number of trade rumors that have developed during this week's Winter Meetings, Cox provided little indication that the club is looking to deal the veteran outfielder.
But then again, the ever-loyal skipper also seems to believe that both Adam LaRoche and Marcus Giles will be back in Atlanta for the 2007 season.
When some reporters asked about his second-base options for the upcoming season, Cox made sure to point out that reporters were assuming Giles wouldn't return. As for LaRoche, whose name has been in various trade rumors, the veteran skipper says the club isn't actively shopping him.
"We're listening to everybody, and [LaRoche's] name and a bunch of names have been out there," Cox said. "You've got to listen. ... We're not looking to trade him. That's for dang sure, not with a swing like that."
LaRoche's swing, which allowed him to hit .285 with 32 homers this past season, has caught the attention of many teams who are seeking his services. Those who would be able to supply the Braves with top relief help will likely prove to be the most active suitors.
"Our team, the way it sits right now, is good," Cox said. "It's a good team. [If we] find another piece for the bullpen, I would be happy as heck."
As Cox was making these comments while addressing the media at this year's Winter Meetings, Braves general manager John Schuerholz was still working on trades that could potentially strengthen the club's pitching staff.
Like Schuerholz, Cox was disappointed when the club wasn't able to even make an offer to Tom Glavine. But at the same time, Cox is very well aware of the significant financial constraints that proved to be the main obstacle.
Even before including the salaries LaRoche and Giles could earn through salary arbitration, the Braves have already committed nearly $66 million of their $80 million payroll to seven players.
So unless they had traded either Tim Hudson or Jones, the Braves wouldn't have had the ability to sign Glavine and still field a strong team around him. Trading either of these two players would have potentially reduced the roster's talent level in a dramatic manner.
"It didn't work out with Glav," Cox said. "We just couldn't fit it in. He can still pitch. It just didn't fit in money-wise. He wasn't asking for too much. But it still didn't fit."
While Glavine returns to the Mets, the Braves could potentially still have a very strong rotation. Cox is excited about the return of Mike Hampton from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and has confidence in Tim Hudson's ability to provide the consistency that he's lacked the past two years.
"Huddy is very capable of winning 15 or 20 [games]," Cox said. "There's no doubt in my mind. He is still working hard and I know he wasn't satisfied with his year last year or the year before, actually. But it's there. I think he's going to be a big winner this year, if we get our bullpen straightened out."
With John Smoltz, Hudson and Hampton, Cox knows the head of his rotation could be as strong as any team in baseball. But having seen his bullpen prove to be a definite problem last year, Cox is looking forward to surrounding closer Bob Wickman with a number of reliable setup men.
The late-season impressions provided by Tyler Yates and Macay McBride provide promise and the recent acquisition of Tanyon Sturtze gives the Braves belief their bullpen will be much stronger than last year's, which blew 29 of 67 save opportunities.
With many players returning to a lineup that ranked second in the National League in runs scored last year, Cox has little concern about generating support for his pitching staff. Instead, he's just hoping that the pitching staff doesn't waste the support provided by the offense.
Last year's production came without the benefit of having a legitimate leadoff hitter and thus Cox doesn't believe it's necessary for the team to seek one. That is, unless Rickey Henderson or Pete Rose becomes available and is willing to play for the right price.
"I've always said, 'If you've got a great pitching staff, who cares who hits leadoff?' What difference does it really make?" said Cox. "To have a Rickey Henderson or a Pete Rose? Yeah, I'll take those guys."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.