Smoltz to Start in 2004?

Despite enjoying amazing success as a closer for the Braves, John Smoltz still wants to go back to his roots as a starting pitcher. With the Braves 2004 rotation severely lacking power pitching, could John Smoltz get a shot?

While the front office faces a huge task with 11 members of the Braves' postseason roster eligible for free agency, the first days after the club's postseason elimination were dominated by the senior member of the team.

The club did not release word that closer John Smoltz was headed to see esteemed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews a day after the season ended. So when it was announced he had undergone a fourth elbow surgery last week, the news came as some surprise to Atlanta.

That Smoltz then hinted at retirement and restated his wish to return to the starting rotation compounded the shock.

"If any future [elbow problems] come up, that's gonna be it," Smoltz said. "I've got one year left on my contract."

The arthroscopic surgery was routine and did not jeopardize the integrity of the joint. Andrews scraped scar tissue from the tendon that was transplanted in his 2000 Tommy John procedure. Smoltz previous had arthroscopic surgeries in 1994 and 1997. He has been placed on the DL twice the last two seasons with tendinitis.

"I obviously want to win another championship before I retire," Smoltz said. "And as a starter I brought the most to the table in the postseason."

Smoltz appears to be a constituency of one who believe returning to starting will be less strain on his elbow. Over his last three seasons as a reliever (he started five games in 2001), Smoltz has thrown a total of 203 2/3 innings. Not counting the times he warmed up, Smoltz managed to throw 64 1/3 innings this season and still developed tendinitis.

How he suspects a starter's load might be easier on his arm is anyone's guess. But the final decision on his role in 2004 belongs to management, and GM John Schuerholz has shown no inclination in the past to head Smoltz in that direction.

"We knew he was in a lot of discomfort; the whole world did," Schuerholz said. "It's a tribute to his toughness."

Smoltz, who turns 37 next May, is entering the final season of a three-year, $30 million contract that will pay him $11 million next season. The club four starters in line to return next year are RHP Russ Ortiz, LHP Mike Hampton, LHP Horacio Ramirez and RHP Paul Byrd (coming off Tommy John surgery).

As Smoltz pointed out, none of them is a power pitcher like him.

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