Brave Pitching Expected to Return to Grace in 2004

2003 marked the first year in over a decade that the Braves had an offense better than their pitching staff. Will the trend continue next season? Doubtful. Bill Shanks takes a look at how the 2004 Braves pitching staff could shape up.

This was the season it supposedly has all fallen apart. Braves pitchers were back in the mortal range, falling in the mediocre middle with the rest of the normal major league teams. Is this the first season of the end? Will our pitching continue to decimate into the pre-90's versions, when we struggled not to allow six runs a game?

Doubtful.

The Braves pitching depth has never been stronger. From top to bottom, the mechanism is in place to provide several options for Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone for years to come.

Greg Maddux is probably, and we stress probably, finished as an Atlanta Brave after 2003. If he would agree to return for a modest and yet respectable salary (i.e. $10 million), he could probably win his 300th game next season in an Atlanta uniform. But if not, he'll leave after one of the most dominating stretches in baseball history for one team.

Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, and Horacio Ramirez are all scheduled to return in 2004. Hampton has returned to his pre-Rockies way of pitching, while Ortiz is far exceeding his last four season average of almost 16 wins and 210 innings with the Giants. The post Maddux-Glavine era will be alright with Hampton and Ortiz leading the way.

Ramirez has had a solid season as a rookie. He was suppose to be in Richmond this season, still only a year away from Tommy John recovery. But he has held his own and been a solid bottom of the rotation starter for the Braves.

Shane Reynolds and Paul Byrd are wildcards. We believe the Braves might have the option of buying Byrd out at $2 million. If that option is there, expect them to cut their losses and possibly try to renegotiate a deal dependent on his health. Reynolds has pitched better than people give him credit for, but at $3.5 million the option might be too expensive, particularly with other options available.

As for the bullpen, hopefully, a healthy John Smoltz will be leading the way. It's obvious the difference in the entire team since he has been out, so we all know his value to the team. Ray King could be non-tendered, but his contract for 2004 would not be that high. If the Braves are happy with his overall performance this season, he'll probably be back. Kevin Gryboski, currently out with labrum worries, is a huge question mark at this time. If he has to have surgery, he might be out for a while going into 2004.You would assume that Darren Holmes is probably done. He's hurt now and might be a longshot to come back even this season.

Two pitchers currently in the bullpen might be invited back. Kent Mercker and Will Cunnane have been very effective with Atlanta. Both would not be too expensive to be back, but do we have room on our 40-man roster to have them around?

Then you have guys who are in the middle; pitchers who could be relievers or starters. Jung Bong, Trey Hodges, and Jason Marquis could all start or relieve. You would expect the Braves will eventually have to make a final decision on Marquis. Surprisingly, he did not get traded at the deadline and remains in the Atlanta bullpen. Hodges and Bong have done well as rookies this year. But which one(s) of these three is better suited to the rotation? If Maddux and Reynolds leave, wouldn't Bong and Hodges be the natural leaders for the pending spring training battle for those rotation spots?

Then you look into the minor leagues and see more possibilities for the 2004 Atlanta pitching staff. Andy Pratt was 7-10, 3.40 ERA for Richmond and doesn't seem to need more time in AAA. Pratt could possibly fill the roll Hodges has had this season if Trey moves into the 2004 rotation.

Travis Phelps and Sam McConnell both did very fine work at Richmond in 2003. Phelps has major league experience with the Devil Rays, so he could warrant a look. McConnell was a career minor leaguer in the Pirates and Phillies systems who really broke out at Richmond (8-4, 2.70). Both may get a non-roster invite next spring, or they may seek greener pastures elsewhere.

There are several pitchers who were in AA in 2003 that will also go to Orlando with an outside shot of making the Atlanta roster. Brett Evert started the season in the AA rotation, but then went to the bullpen to straighten out some mechanical problems. Much like Jung Bong did in 2002, Evert showed the Braves he could handle the bullpen role, and may be a candidate next spring. Roman Colon moved into the Greenville bullpen after Chris Waters returned to action in June. Colon was very effective and has some Braves scouts wondering if he could easily slide into the Atlanta bullpen next season.

In any other organization, Bubba Nelson and Adam Wainwright would go into Spring Training 2004 with an excellent shot at making the big league roster. Instead, they will be longshots with no need to necessarily rush them. These two could be members of the Atlanta Braves starting rotation for a long time, and could signal the "real" transition year of 2005.

Nelson was promoted from Greenville to Richmond in August to see how he could handle the role as a reliever. He did well, going 0-1 with an ERA of 1.88 in eleven games. There is still an outside chance Nelson could be called up to Atlanta this month. Nevertheless, Bubba showed he too could handle the relief role if that's what is needed in Atlanta and is what is needed to get him to the big leagues. The Braves have maintained, however, that their long term plans for Nelson is still as a starting pitcher.

Wainwright is perfectly progressing up the minor league ladder. He has now eclipsed the 500 career minor league inning mark, meaning it's time to watch out for him. Adam was simply outstanding down the stretch for Greenville, going 5-1 with a 2.40 ERA in his last ten starts. Adam will more than likely begin 2004 in Richmond, but he may be ready by midseason for a chance at Atlanta.

The possibilities are endless. Plus, you know General Manager John Schuerholz will bring in a couple of veterans, whether it's for non-roster spots or guys who could step into the bullpen.

Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone should have plenty of pitchers to chose from next spring.

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