Should Smoltz Make Another Move?

The Atlanta Braves have two big questions that must be answered before they proceed with their offseason plans. The first is "Should Smoltz Make Another Move?" while the second is "Where Will Chipper Play?" BravesCenter.com Editor Bill Shanks takes a look at the first question, analyzing whether it will be better for the Braves to place John Smoltz back in the rotation.

It's been a debate for four seasons now. You could almost say it's divided the BravesNation into two halves: the ones who believe John Smoltz should stay as the team's closer, and the ones who believe he should move back into the rotation.

There is no doubt which side Smoltz agrees with. He's said for a couple of years that he believes it more than a coincidence that the Braves have not advanced far into the playoffs with him not pitching until the 9th inning. He believes he's more valuable to the Braves as a starting pitcher, and reiterated that belief late in the 2004 season.

The Braves have said believing Smoltz can pitch 200 innings in one season is simply unrealistic. He's had three surgeries on his elbow already, and even Smoltz has said the third one was the last one. Smoltz believes the days in between his starts will give his elbow time to rest completely, while the Braves believe it will only add mileage onto an arm that's had it's share of wear and tear already.

So now, as the Braves look ahead to the 2005 season, there is once again talk that Smoltz wants to move to the rotation. He has told General Manager John Schuerholz that he does, in fact, want to be a starter again. Smoltz knows he's at the end of his brilliant career, and he wants one more shot at the rotation.

For the Braves, this is more than just a question of whether Smoltz can handle the extra innings. There are several other considerations in play here. First, if Smoltz moves to the rotation, they're going to have to find a closer. Smoltz is the best closer this organization ever has had. For years, the Braves believed they weren't able to win a title because of a lack of a closer. The only year in the 90's they had a real closer they won the World Series. Mark Wohlers was great until he broke down himself, but Alejandro Pena, Jeff Reardon, Mike Stanton, Greg McMichael, and John Rocker all tried and failed to match up to the production that Smoltz showed as the Braves closer.

Then the other consideration is financial. Smoltz has a stipulation in his contract that if he is moved back to the rotation, the Braves must pay him $100,000 per start. With a guaranteed $12 million dollar salary already in place, Smoltz could get $15.5 million if he stayed healthy and made 35 starts. With a payroll staying around $80 million, that extra $3.5 million is not easy to allocate to a starting pitcher. Plus, there are not many $15.5 million dollar starting pitchers around. And to expect a pitcher who hasn't started at least 30 games since 1997 to do so now, after three surgeries and at 38 years old, may be unrealistic.

But what if Smoltz can stay healthy? The Braves would have one of the best pitchers in the game, and they'd once again have an ace. This would almost be one last hurrah, one last chance for at least one of the big three (Smoltz, Maddux, or Glavine) to be in a Braves starting rotation. There's little doubt in anyone's mind that if Smoltz could stay healthy, he could probably win 15 games.

But I started wondering recently how well Smoltz did as a starter when he first came back from his Tommy John surgery, before he was moved to the bullpen. Smoltz made five starts, and it wasn't very impressive. Smoltz was 2-2 with an ERA of 5.76. Then when the Braves moved him to the bullpen, he was great. Smoltz went 1-1 with a 1.59 ERA and 10 saves in 11 chances.

Late in the 2004 season I heard Smoltz give an interview in the Braves clubhouse to another reporter about his situation. It struck me that I had never heard him so adamant about his desire to the rotation. In a way, I personally had grown tired of hearing it. But when I heard him talk so passionately about wanting to be a starter again, I started to feel sorry for the guy. He genuinely misses being a starting pitcher. It has nothing to do with the salary bump. This is all about him returning to the role that made him a great pitcher in the first place.

So now I'm a little more apathetic about the entire situation. Maybe the Braves should give him a chance to start again. I'm still not convinced myself that his arm can hold up, but I'm sure his heart can. Even if the extra work is taxing on his elbow, I have a feeling Smoltz will get through it somehow. And if he can give the Braves 30 starts as the old John Smoltz, well that may be better than 36 starts from anybody else.

Of course, General Manager John Schuerholz will have to workout some contract agreement to take care of that extra $3.5 million bucks that Smoltz could make if he has 35 starts. The Braves simply can't afford to have a $15 million dollar pitcher, especially if the pitcher is older and has an extensive injury history. No team can afford that these days. Whether they take on an additional year based on his number of starts, or take that extra money and spread it out when Smoltz is 50 years old or something, they've got to get that salary back down to the $12 million mark.

There is some solace in the gamble of Smoltz going to the rotation. If he was to get injured, the Braves have several pitching prospects that are close to being ready to step into a big league rotation. Some think Jose Capellan is ready now, while Dan Meyer and Kyle Davies are both not far behind. All three of these kids could be ready in July of next season, so at least there would be replacements waiting if Smoltz had any trouble.

So let's go ahead and let Smoltz start, re-work that contract, and go sign a new closer. I think John Smoltz has almost earned the right to make the call, and he's just determined to be a starter again. He probably feels by now that he has to prove that he can be a starting pitcher again, so you know he'll give it his all. That's not a question. The question is whether that arm can hold up. Like Smoltz says, we're not going to know unless he gives it a try. So let's go ahead and let him do just that.

Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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