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Center story
Questions surround Jones on, off the field entering second half

A strong second half will probably guarantee that Andruw Jones won't be back in Atlanta next season.

But if the nine-time Gold Glove winner doesn't bounce back at the plate, the Braves have little chance of catching the New York Mets in the National League East.

Despite a miserable first half by Jones and other disappointments, the Braves were able to stay in the race because of the Mets' problems.

With a wild-card opening unlikely, an old-fashioned pennant race lies ahead between the Mets, Braves and Phillies.

The Braves desperately need John Smoltz and Chipper Jones to be healthy. But the most intriguing storyline remains their center fielder.

Hoping for a banner year in his last season before free agency, Andruw Jones showed up at spring training leaner and seemingly in top shape.

With his long-term future hanging in the balance, little has gone right for the slugger.

Is he pressing, trying to secure a big contract? Has his body suddenly betrayed him at age 30 because of extra wear and tear?

Agent Scott Boras claims that his client is just going through one of those slumps that even the best players must occasional endure.

"He's always had some parts of the season where he'd struggle, but not this long," Braves manager Bobby Cox said.

Despite a 6-for-11 weekend in San Diego before the All-Star break, Jones' .211 average was the lowest among major league regulars. He was on pace for only about half of the 51 homers he hit in 2005.

Some feel otherwise, but Cox still calls Jones the "best center fielder in all of baseball." The Braves, however, need Jones to be his old self at the plate as well.

Boras spent time with his client when the Braves were in Los Angeles. He insists that Jones will get a mega-contract after the season, no matter what he does in the second half.

But Jones, who lives in Sugarloaf, has always said that his preference would be to stay with the Braves. Has his contract uncertainty affected his play? Boras insists not.

"Andruw Jones isn't the type of athlete who is worried about a contract," the agent told MLB.com.

With Ichiro Suzuki getting a five-year, $90 million deal to stay with the Seattle Mariners, Jones will likely be the biggest name in the free agent marketplace this winter unless Alex Rodriguez - another Boras client - opts out of his mega-deal with the New York Yankees.

Boras is believed to envision a contract of about $120 million spread over six or seven years for Jones. That certainly won't happen with the Braves, who might have to turn to Georgia native Mike Cameron of the San Diego Padres if they can't afford Jones or the Minnesota Twins' Torii Hunter.

The Braves flirted with the possibility of dealing Jones last July before his no-trade protection kicked in. Now, trade options are slim.

Chicago White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle might have been an option, but he was re-signed for $56 million over four seasons.

This is Jones' 11th full season with the Braves. If it's his last, the Braves can only hope he has the kind of second half that helps propel them to the NL East title.