The Washington Times - February 9, 2009, 03:24PM

The Rangers signed outfielder Andruw Jones to a minor league deal on Sunday that will pay him $500,000 if he makes the team and also includes $1 million in potential incentives. In case you were wondering, yes, that is the same Andruw Jones who played in five All-Star games, won 10 Gold Gloves and once hit 51 home runs in a single season for the Atlanta Braves. The same guy who inked a two-year, $36 million deal with the Dodgers last offseason. Signing a minor league deal. With the Rangers. Wow.

Jones’ decline was swift and unexpected. It was only four years ago, in 2005, that he had his finest season as a big leaguer, smashing 51 homers and knocking in 129 runs to finish second in the National League MVP vote. He followed that up with 41 jacks and 129 RBI in 2006, and big things were expected of him in his contract year of 2007. Jones laid an egg, however, hitting just .222 with 26 homers and 94 RBI. The precipitous drop-off scared off many suitors, but the Dodgers chalked it up as an off-year and gave Jones $18 million a year for two years even though they already had the speedy Juan Pierre and up-and-comers Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier in the outfield.

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It looked like a questionable signing from the get-go, and Jones went out and made sure it would go down as one of the worst in baseball history. He was hitting well under .200 with just two homers when torn cartliage in his knee required surgery in late May. He returned in July and somehow managed to play even worse, and when Manny Ramirez arrived from Boston he became baseball’s most expensive bench player. Jones found himself back on the DL in August, made a cameo in early September (0-for-4, 2 K’s) and then called it a season. He finished the year with a .158 average, three homers, 14 RBI and an absurd 76 strikeouts in 209 at bats.

There are a number of factors that may have contributed to Jones’ sudden downfall. While he was still only 31 for most of 2008, it was an old 31; Jones debuted at age 19 in 1996 and played center field with reckless abandon for an average of 157 games per season over the next 11 years. Conditioning also played a role. Jones played at around 170 pounds for his first several years but was listed at 240 last season, and looked overweight and slow. And of course, performance-enhancing drug use - and a subsequent lack thereof - can’t be counted out. To be fair, Jones has never been linked to steroids, but he has played his entire career during what will go down in history as the Steroid Era.

Jones has made millions playing baseball and is still owed millions more by the Dodgers, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be willing to put in the work necessary to get back to being the player he was not all that long ago. The Dallas Morning News reported that Texas made the decision to sign him after he looked good during a Jan. 26 workout with Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. The paper also noted that Jones has lost significant weight during the offseason, possibly as much as 25 pounds. “Rudy liked what he saw in his swing and thinks he can help him be consistent,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said Sunday. “He could be an impact. He was an impact for 12 years in Atlanta.”

Washington makes a good point, and it’s a good gamble for the Rangers, who basically have nothing to lose except $500,000 and some of Jaramillo’s time. They already have emerging superstar Josh Hamilton at one outfield spot, with David Murphy, Marlon Byrd, Nelson Cruz, Brandon Boggs and now Jones fighting for the other two spots and some DH at bats, so it’s not like they’re counting on Jones. If he can get back to being even, say, three-quarters of the player he was a couple years ago, he could hit .250 with 30 home runs. If it’s true that he’s shed the excess weight, and if he’s also over his knee problems, he could also conceivably provide Gold Glove-caliber defense. Of course, it’s also quite possible that he’s washed up, but, like the Rangers, we’ll all just have to wait and see.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at [email protected]