Long Term Pitching Is Still Just Fine

<B>Greg Maddux</B> for <B>John Thomson</B>? Is it time to start panicking? Don't worry - the Braves pitching situation is ripe and brighter than it has ever been. Bill Shanks looks over Braves pitching in the short, and long term.

In a span of three days, the Atlanta Braves lost a future Hall-of-Famer in Greg Maddux and gained a pitcher who had an ERA of 4.85.

Is there anything to be worried about?

Not really.

Oh yea, we'll miss Greg Maddux. He was Greg Maddux, and we'll likely never see anyone as good in our lifetime. But Maddux's agent, Scott Boras, helped the Braves make their decision. Boras once again gave the Braves the notion that big money was needed to keep Maddux around.

Could the Braves afford to risk the same treatment they got from Boras last winter? He "claimed" there were other teams offering Maddux a multi-year contract, and then more or less suckered the Braves into offering Greg arbitration. There was no way it was going to happen again.

So John Thomson, in from Texas with his 13-14 record, will have the unfortunate label as the pitcher who "replaced" Greg Maddux. But that is far from the truth. Maddux was an ace, while Thomson will be counted on to be no more than a third starter, possibly only a fourth starter in the Atlanta rotation.

The Braves had their sites set on one potential ace pitcher, but the Yankees offered Montreal more major league ready players for Javier Vazquez. As a pitcher who has been compared to Maddux, the 27-year-old Vazquez would have been a perfect fit for the long term in Atlanta. Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz have always loved Vazquez, but New York's offer of First Baseman Nick Johnson sealed the deal with the Expos.

Since Vazquez was off the table, and Maddux was headed out of town, the Braves decided they had to get one veteran pitcher to provide innings in the rotation. This veteran would also come at a relatively "reasonable" salary, giving the Braves enough financial flexibility to strengthen other areas (i.e. right field) of the roster.

This is why Kevin Millwood has always been a long shot to return this winter. Mr. Boras showed last week why the Braves traded Millwood in the first place, when he claimed he wanted a 6 year-$90 million dollar contract for his client. The Braves weren't interested in that type of deal for Millwood a year ago, and still are not interested now.

So that put the Braves looking at a pitcher like John Thomson. The 30-year old had a very decent season for the struggling Texas Rangers. He was 9-5 in his last 18 starts, and as General Manager John Schuerholz said Tuesday, scouts believe he is ready to build on that success with even more solid production in the future. The deal for Thomson is perfect: 2 years at $5.5 million with a potential third season at $4.75 million.

With young starting pitchers like Adam Wainwright, Bubba Nelson, Dan Meyer, and Dan Meyer all potentially ready within the next 2-3 seasons, there was no need to go out and sign a starter to a long-term contract. Again, Vazquez was an exception. But there's really no point in acquiring a middle-of-the-rotation starter for more than three seasons when our next batch of "Young Guns" will probably be ready.

Remember, Russ Ortiz and the ghost of Paul Byrd will be off the books after 2004. So Thomson will join Mike Hampton and Horacio Ramirez in the 2005 rotation, with the potential of one of the above mentioned young kids ready to step in as well.

As for 2004, the pitching staff may not stack up with the Cubs or Red Sox, but it's not bad either. Ortiz and Hampton will be the leaders of the rotation. That's not a bad 1-2 punch. Fans can point to Ortiz's 2003 run support all they want, but the fact is he has averaged 16.8 wins and 210 innings over the past five seasons. Hampton grew more comfortable in his Braves uniform as the season progressed, and there's no reason to believe he won't be even better in 2004.

Thomson and Horacio Ramirez will make up the middle of the Braves rotation. We all know what pitchers do once they put on that Atlanta uniform. Whether it's Leo Mazzone or the thread itself sporting the Tomahawk, most pitchers (except Albie Lopez) do very well when they join the Braves. Thomson could improve on his 13 Texas Rangers wins and be a very effective middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. If Thomson and Ramirez can combine for at least 30 wins and 400 innings, the Braves will be in good shape.

Then you look at the multitude of candidates for the 5th spot in the starting rotation. Trey Hodges, Jung Bong, Jason Marquis, Bubba Nelson, and Adam Wainwright. The first three are returnees from 2003, while the last two have an outside chance to skip AAA (although Nelson saw a cup of coffee in Richmond as a reliever in 2003) and make it to Atlanta.

Hodges could be a favorite, mainly since the Braves wonder how effective he could be as a starter. Last season, Hodges got into a groove as a middle reliever, gaining Cox's confidence and getting some appearances as the Braves set up man. But he wore down after July, causing the Braves to question his effectiveness out of the bullpen. Hodges only start last season was impressive.

The same questions about a bullpen future could be asked about Bong. He was effective at times last season, but some in the Braves organization wonder if he can be more productive as a starting pitcher. More than likely, Hodges and Bong will be the leading candidates to win the fifth starter's spot.

Marquis is the wildcard, and he has been the last two years. It's possible he could be included in a trade this off-season, as some in the front office wonder if Jason has wore out his stay with the Braves. There's no doubt he has talent, but it may not truly come to light until after he leaves Atlanta.

Could Adam Wainwright and/or Bubba Nelson pitch well enough in spring training to win a spot on the Atlanta opening day roster? Absolutely. Would they probably be better served by seeing some action in AAA and working with Richmond pitching coach Guy Hansen? Absolutely. But don't be shocked if these guys go to Orlando and open eyes next March. They are both very talented, but as potential future long-term members of the Atlanta rotation, the Braves are going to be very careful to let them complete their development.

If one of these five does not step forward to win the 5th starter's job, an outside candidate could be Jaret Wright. As of now, the Braves have Wright penciled in as the main right-handed set-up man to John Smoltz. But with Wright's starting experience, the Braves could be tempted to move him back into a starter's role if none of the kids step up and shine. More than likely, however, Wright will remain in the bullpen.

Speaking of the bullpen, Atlanta was spurned Tuesday when Tim Worrell surprised everyone and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves believed they had a deal wrapped up with Worrell, who saved 38 games with the San Francisco Giants in 2003. Expect the Braves to continue to shop for similar relievers, possibly waiting until a few more become available after December 20th.

Worrell would have been a nice insurance policy in case John Smoltz has any difficulty next season. If healthy, Smoltz is the most dominant closer in the game. But it's a big "if." The Braves would like to acquire a pitcher (or perhaps have Wright step into the role) who could ease at least some of the closer's duties off of Smoltz's shoulders.

Wright, Will Cunnane, and Kevin Gryboski are three right-handers who will set up Smoltz and the potential relief addition. Cunnane was tremendously effective late last season, while Gryboski has become a favorite of Bobby Cox.

Ray King will return as the main left-handed reliever. It's possible the Braves could bring in another left-hander, either to set up Smoltz or to assist King in the 6th and 7th innings.

There are several rookie pitchers to keep your eye on as potential relievers. The "loser" of the 5th starter's race will surely be in the bullpen, so we could possibly expect Hodges or Bong back in their 2003 role. But don't forget about Roman Colon and Brett Evert. The Braves moved Colon to the bullpen last July in Greenville, and he was very effective. A good number of Braves scouts believe Colon is ready to become an effective middle reliever in the major leagues. And Evert showed in a month's work out of the Greenville bullpen in 2003 that he can handle the role as well.

If not lost in next week's Rule V Draft, Ray Aguilar, Kevin Barry, Buddy Hernandez, and Alec Zumwalt could also go to Orlando as non-roster invitees and have an outside chance.

But you know John Schuerholz will bring in one or two Darren Holmes types for spring training. He always does.

Oh and let's not forget that the pitching staff could have a surprise visitor in 2004. Paul Byrd claims he will be ready in the first part of the season. We'll see.

The Braves long-term outlook with pitching is excellent. As stated earlier, Wainwright and Nelson will be ready no later than 2005. Left-handers Dan Meyer and Macay McBride could be knocking on the door no later than 2006. These are four of the best starting pitching prospects in the game.

With two teams below AA winning league championships, the Braves have numerous young pitching prospects who could be in the same position two years from now. Kyle Davies, Gonzalo Lopez, Anthony Lerew, Matt Wright, and Sean White are five in particular to keep your eye on next season. Any of these five could elevate themselves into a higher level of prospect standing next year.

Greg Maddux is gone, and we should not ever put pressure on the people who are now joining the Atlanta staff by comparing their numbers with his. But the parts are still in place to give the Braves a very competitive team in 2004.

Now as for right field…

Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show" during the baseball season. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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