Kolb's Addition Means Smoltz Back As Starter

The Atlanta Braves acquired Danny Kolb from the Milwaukee Brewers Saturday night. The deal means that one of the best starting pitchers in Atlanta history is headed back to his favorite role.

Back in March when the Braves were looking for help in the bullpen, one of the pitchers they inquired about was Milwaukee right-hander Danny Kolb. He was coming off his breakout season in 2003, saving 21 games after July 19th. The Braves scouted Kolb heavily, seeing him throw several 100 mile an hour pitches in a few Cactus League games.

Atlanta and Milwaukee couldn't come to an agreement on a deal in March, but they did Saturday night.

The Braves acquired the All-Star Kolb for right-handed pitching prospect Jose Capellan and a player to be named later. Kolb will now become Atlanta's closer, enabling John Smoltz to move back into the starting rotation.

Kolb followed up his breakout season with another solid year in 2004 for the Brewers. He saved 39 games in 44 opportunities, allowed 50 hits in 57.1 innings, struck out only 21 and walked 15. The 6'4", 240 pound righty will be 30 years old on Opening Day in 2005.

Drafted by the Rangers in the sixth round of the 1995 draft, Kolb spent parts of five seasons in the minors before making his big league debut in 1999. The next season he had Tommy John surgery and missed the second half of the 2000 season and the first half of the next season. Kolb pitched in 17 games with Texas at the end of 2001, and then pitched 34 games for the Rangers in 2002.

Kolb was released by the Rangers at the end of Spring Training in 2003 and then signed by the Brewers a week later. He started out in AAA at Indianapolis and went 0-1 with a 1.37 ERA in 26 games (26 hits in 39.1 innings with 13 walks and 46 strikeouts). The Brewers purchased his contract on June 17th and a month later he became their closer.

Ironically, Danny's cousin, Gary Kolb, was an outfielder with the Milwaukee Braves back in 1964 and 1965. Danny didn't even play baseball in high school, only basketball, since his high school didn't have a baseball program. He is a sinkerball pitcher who also has an outstanding fastball.

Capellan was rated as the Braves third best pitching prospect and fifth best prospect overall by BravesCenter.com. The Braves did not want to trade Capellan, but had right-hander Kyle Davies and left-hander Dan Meyer rated higher.

Capellan was signed by the Braves as a seventeen year old back in 1998. He was actually playing basketball in the Dominican Republic when he was first discovered by a Braves scout, who believed Capellan had tremendous size for his age. When the Braves put him on the mound, they also found out Capellan had a tremendous fastball.

By the 2001 season, the Braves believed Capellan had the best arm in the organization. But then late that season he tore his elbow ligament and had to have Tommy John surgery. Capellan didn't return until the 2003 season. He pitched 14 games (12 starts) with the Rome Braves and again showed a fastball that reached the high-90's. Capellan didn't have great numbers (1-2 with a 3.80 ERA with 19 walks and 32 strikeouts in 47 innings pitched), but he did show the Braves that he was once again a major prospect.

However, at the end of the 2003 season Capellan was involved in a fight at a bar in Rome. The incident did nothing to endear "Cappy" to members of the Braves organization. But then he went to the Instructional League and again showed his 100 mph fastball, but this time with Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox in attendance. Capellan was placed on the 40-man roster and Cox started talking about him as a candidate for the Atlanta roster in 2005.

The Braves sent Capellan to High-A Myrtle Beach to start the 2004 season. He was absolutely dominating going 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA in 8 starts (27 hits allowed in 46.1 innings pitched with 11 walks and 62 strikeouts). Then he went up to AA Greenville and continued his solid work going 5-1 with a 2.50 ERA (19 walks and 53 K's in 43 innings pitched). Finally, the Braves sent him up to AAA. In Richmond, Cappy went 4-2 with a 2.50 ERA in 7 starts with 15 walks and 37 strikeouts. His overall minor league numbers for 2004: 14-4, 2.33 ERA, 133 hits in 139.1 innings pitched, 45 walks, and 152 strikeouts.

The Braves called Capellan up in September and on the 12th of that month he made his big league debut in a start against the Expos. Capellan received a no-decision but pitched well, going 5 innings, allowing 2 runs on 4 hits, 3 walks, and 4 strikeouts. Then on three days rest, the Braves started him against the New York Mets and Capellan got drilled. He allowed 7 runs on 6 hits and walked 2 in one inning. He had one more relief appearance later in the month and finished with a 11.25 ERA in three big league appearances.

However, the Braves were not deterred by his poor September showing. Former Richmond pitching coach Guy Hansen compared Capellan to a young Bartolo Colon with his fantastic fastball. There was considerable discussion on whether or not Capellan was better suited as a starter or a reliever, and it looked like if he had remained with the Braves, his future was going to be as a reliever.

Two other prospects, right-hander Kyle Davies and left-hander Dan Meyer, are considered better long-term pitching prospects by the organization. There is no doubt that Capellan has the potential to be a great pitcher, but there were some concerns about his makeup, particularly compared to Davies and Meyer, who have off the charts makeup.

Atlanta was involved in trade discussions with the Oakland A's about right-hander Tim Hudson. However, the A's demanded second baseman Marcus Giles and Meyer be in the deal. The Braves balked. They have no immediate and adequate replacement for Giles at second base, and they have no desire to trade Meyer. Atlanta even attempted to get Capellan into the discussions with the A's, but Oakland General Manager Billy Beane demanded Meyer. The A's believed Meyer was good enough to immediately become their number four-pitcher in their rotation in 2005 behind Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Rich Harden.

The Braves believe Meyer is very close to being ready for the big leagues. There are some in the organization that believe he could be just as effective as a rookie pitcher in 2005 as Horacio Ramirez was in 2003. Also, there are some in the organization that believe Kyle Davies will be in the Atlanta rotation by mid-season. Therefore, Capellan became somewhat expendable.

This trade also allows the team to move John Smoltz back into the rotation. Smoltz has been heckling the team for such a move for almost two years. He was one of the top starting pitchers in the game from 1989 through 1999 before having to have Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2000. When he returned in the middle of 2001, the Braves moved him to the bullpen, where he eventually became one of the best closers in the game.

Even though Smoltz was wildly successful in the bullpen, he was not totally happy. He continued to state in the media that it was his belief that as long as he was in the bullpen, the Braves would have trouble in the postseason. Smoltz enjoyed tremendous success as a starter in the playoffs, going 12-4 with a 2.60 ERA in 26 career starts, 144 hits in 180.1 innings, 52 earned runs, 62 walks, and 172 strikeouts. Smoltz believe it was more than a coincidence that since he's been in the bullpen, the Braves have failed to make it back to the World Series.

But now he'll return to the rotation in 2005. His current contract stipulates that if ever did return to the starting rotation, he would be paid an extra $100,000 per start. However, Smoltz and his agent Lonnie Cooper have already held discussions with the Braves to re-work the contract. It is likely he will be given at least one additional season on the deal, but the clause with the money allocated with each start will be eliminated. Smoltz told the Braves after the 2004 season that he wasn't going to allow any contract situation get in the way of a possible return to the rotation.

BravesCenter.com has learned that it is very likely Smoltz will be joined by another former member of the Atlanta rotation. The Braves remain in serious discussions with Kevin Millwood, whom the team traded away two years ago next week. Millwood is a free agent, not offered arbitration by the Philadelphia Phillies. The Texas Rangers have also had discussions with Scott Boras, Millwood's agent. But Millwood has informed Boras that he wants to come home and pitch with the Braves. He still maintains a home in Duluth, Georgia, a north Atlanta suburb. Millwood never wanted to be traded in the first place and was reportedly heartbroken when dealt in December of 2002.

Millwood was an 11th round draft choice of the Braves in the 1993 June draft. He made his debut in Atlanta in 1997 and over the next five and a half seasons went 75-44. The Braves traded him to the Phillies for catcher Johnny Estrada when they were in a payroll squeeze. Greg Maddux accepted arbitration, committing the Braves to a salary over $14 million dollars, making them unable to afford Millwood's expected $10 million dollar salary. He went to arbitration again last winter with the Phillies and was paid $11 million in 2004. But he had perhaps his worst season as a pro, going 9-6 with a 4.85 ERA in 25 games started. Millwood had some arm troubles last season, so you can bet the Braves will make sure he is healthy before signing any contract.

Millwood, who will turn 30 years old on Christmas Eve, would likely return for a deal in the neighborhood of $4-5 million dollars. This would have the 2005 Atlanta rotation looking like this:

John Smoltz
Kevin Millwood
Mike Hampton
John Thomson
Horacio Ramirez

The Braves have always been hesitant to move Smoltz back to the rotation, fearing that if he tried to start 30-35 games his elbow would not hold up. But if he encounters any injury troubles in 2005, the Braves will have Dan Meyer and Kyle Davies waiting in the wings. Horacio Ramirez, coming off shoulder surgery in October, must still go prove he's healthy in spring training as well.

After it became obvious the A's were only going to hold out for Giles and Meyer, the better option was for Smoltz to return to the rotation and to acquire another closer. With a potential deal in the works for Millwood, the Braves believe the combination of Smoltz and Millwood will form one of the best duos in the league. Also, Mike Hampton can settle into his role as a number three starter.

Bill Shanks can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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