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Andruw Jones mired in prolonged slump

ATLANTA - Andruw Jones was only 19 and still had Class A dirt in his cleats when he made his debut with the Atlanta Braves in 1996.

After hitting home runs in his first two at-bats against the New York Yankees in the 1996 World Series, no one remembered that he batted only .217 in about 100 regular season at-bats that year.

Fast forward to 2007.

Jones, now 30, is a five-time All-Star in his 12th big league season. He has won nine Gold Gloves in center field, hit 30 or more home runs in seven seasons and has 353 career homers.

But just when he should be at the top of his game, Jones has fallen even below his first-year form: Through Monday's 0-for-4 showing against Boston, he's hitting only .205, the low mark among National League regulars.

Jones has endured many slumps in his career, but this one has disturbing staying power. More than one-third of the season has passed, and he has more strikeouts than hits.

Jones hit only .202 in May and is at .147 for June.

''I'm just trying to go out there and do my job,'' he said. ''I have a good day, a bad day, a good day, two days bad. That's baseball. You just have to keep your head up and go out there and continue to play and know there's something you can do to help your team win.''

Jones has been having more bad days than good for more than a few weeks.

Concern grows with the reminder that Jones, a career .265 hitter, hit only .249 in the second half last year.

Jones' .205 average is the lowest among National League hitters with at least 200 at-bats.

Jones has 11 homers and 42 RBIs. He is on pace for another 100-RBI season but only 28 homers, which would be his low mark since hitting 26 in 1999.

The poor start this season could prove costly for Jones, because this is his last year before he's eligible for free agency.

Only a year ago Jones, who is making $18 million this season, appeared to be in perfect position to earn an even bigger payday.

He made his fifth All-Star team last season as he was hitting .271 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs at the break. Though his batting average fell to .262, he finished with 41 homers and set a career high with 129 RBIs after hitting 51 homers with 128 RBIs in 2005.

The two-year totals of 92 homers and 257 RBIs should have been an ideal launching point for the 2007 contract season, especially when matched with Jones' ever-growing collection of amazing catches.

There were whispers two years ago that Jones had lost a step and no longer could chase down as many balls in the outfield. Jones lost about 10 pounds in the offseason and now looks as quick as ever as he constantly risks injury to make tumbling catches in the gaps or when diving at full speed toward the infield.

Jones is represented by agent Scott Boras. Based on Jones' pre-2007 numbers, Boras may ask for a long-term deal that would fit somewhere between the contracts he negotiated for Carlos Beltran (seven years, $119 million) and Alex Rodriguez (10 years, $252 million).

Jones' power numbers of recent seasons and his reputation as the game's best defensive outfielder can make up for a batting average that was stuck in the low .260s for four of the last five seasons. But who would commit long-term millions for a sub-.220 hitter, especially if Jones' power numbers also are down?

Will general managers who might otherwise enter a bidding war worry that Jones, who is approaching 1,700 games played, has more mileage than most 30-year-old players?

It's possible a subpar offensive season could make Jones more affordable for the Braves.

The Braves, under new Liberty Media ownership, could make a statement to fans by re-signing Jones.

Manager Bobby Cox says he remains confident Jones' final numbers will meet his career standards.

''It's funny how Andruw goes,'' Cox said. ''You'll see him at his world's worst and then all of a sudden he gets hot and he carries the team. We're hoping that's going to start real soon.''

Cox this week removed Jones from the cleanup spot. Chipper Jones, normally the No. 3 hitter, hit fourth when he returned from the disabled list on Wednesday night. Andruw Jones, who has driven in runs in only three games this month, hit fifth.

Andruw Jones says he hasn't tried to change his batting stance this year. He widened his stance before his 51-homer season in 2005 and still appears off-balance at times at the end of his swing.

He says he has focused on trying to see the ball better.

Following his five strikeouts in a 6-3 loss at Boston on May 20, Jones said he struggled to pick up the ball in Fenway Park's hitting background.

But Jones has been at his worst at home, where he has a familiar hitting backdrop. He is hitting only .197 at Turner Field, where he returns for Monday's series-opener against Boston.

It has been a long time since Jones was a skinny kid who became the first NL player to hit homers in his first two World Series at-bats. Now the veteran says he knows better than to place too much pressure on himself - despite the financial ramifications.

''You have to keep playing and hope somebody can pick you up or something else happens and we can get on a good streak,'' he said.

''You just have to stay positive. You have to try to do anything you can to help the team - and try not to do too much.''