Stability was a trademark of the Atlanta Braves starting rotation in the 1990's. The trio of Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz were together from 1990-1996. Then Greg Maddux joined Glavine and Maddux, and those three were the best in the game from 1993-1999. Kevin Millwood practically replaced Avery and was with Maddux and Glavine from 1997-2002.
So for a thirteen-year period the Braves had at least sixty percent of their rotation pretty much set. They knew much knew they were going to have three top starters during that period.
But as we headed into this offseason, change was inevitable. The team knew Russ Ortiz was not coming back. Arbitration would have netted him maybe even more than he got annually from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Jaret Wright was a wildcard. There was always the chance some team would come in and overpay for him. That's exactly what happened.
Consequently, General Manager John Schuerholz had to go out and make some moves. Late last week, when it looked like the discussions with Oakland regarding Tim Hudson were going nowhere, Schuerholz and his brass decided that it might be more inexpensive to simply acquire a closer and move Smoltz back into the rotation. So they acquired the Brewers closer, Danny Kolb, to replace Smoltz and immediately gained a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.
But then fate stepped in and gave the Braves a hand. After telling the A's they were not going to put Marcus Giles in any deal for Tim Hudson, the Braves were shocked when Oakland GM Billy Beane contacted them again to resume talks. He was so infatuated with Braves prospect Dan Meyer that the trade had life again. When the deal went down Wednesday, the acquisition of Hudson gave the Braves a second top-of-the-rotation starter.
Over the last few years critics have said the Braves did not have an "ace." That's sometimes difficult to define. But however you want to define it, there's a good chance John Smoltz and Tim Hudson will fit the bill. So just like the 1990's, when the Braves got into five World Series, the team once again a pair of aces at the top of the rotation.
The biggest question, of course, is whether or not Smoltz can stay healthy. He says he can and now, after originally objecting for three years, the Braves agree as well. Expect him to sign a contract extension in the next few weeks that will allow him to finish his career in an Atlanta uniform. It will also give him the role he's coveted for some time: the leader of the Atlanta pitching staff.
Smoltz was one of the most consistent starting pitchers of the 1990's. From 1990-1999, he was 143-95 with an ERA of 3.33 in 315 starts (and that includes two years affected by the 1994 strike). Of course, the big difference is the playoffs, where he was 12-5 in the 1990's with an ERA of 2.78 in 28 games.
The last year the Braves were in the World Series was the last year Smoltz was in the starting rotation. He thinks it's more than a coincidence.
So now he gets his chance to get back where he thinks he belongs. No one has more dedication to his work than Smoltz, so he's not a person you want to bet against. But can that elbow hold up? Can it withstand 30 starts and 200 innings?
Time will tell. If it can, the Braves will have one of the best starting pitchers in the game – bar none. He's the kind of starting pitcher that can win a team a World Series.
But the Braves will have two aces when Hudson dons an Atlanta uniform, which should be a tremendous thrill for the lifelong Braves fan. Born in Columbus, Georgia, just 90 miles southwest of Turner Field, Hudson was thirteen years old when Smoltz made his big league debut in July of 1988. He loves watching Smoltz and the others dominate the rest of the National League, and now he gets a chance to join Smoltz in the same quest for excellence.
There's no reason to believe he won't be able to duplicate his dominance in the National League. This guy is 53 games over .500 in his big league career – 53 games! Greg Maddux was only 20 games over .500 when he came to the Braves from the Cubs before the 1993 season. Hudson is pure and simply a tremendous pitcher.
He's used to sharing the spotlight, joining Mark Mulder and Barry Zito in the A's rotation the last five seasons. But now he's an Atlanta Brave, and as a longtime fan, that's got to be an unbelievable honor to join that rotation. Hudson should thrive in his new environment.
And that's what should keep him here for many years to come. Let's not worry about the contract situation now. That'll be handled later. But let's just hope that Hudson falls in love with pitching for the Braves as much as he did watching them as a kid. If he finds his comfort level, Hudson could be one of the best pitchers in the National League.
The additions of Smoltz and Hudson should enable Mike Hampton and John Thomson, last year's number two and three starters, to settle in to more comfortable roles at three and four. Hampton has had two straight seasons where he started off terribly slow and then bounced back with solid second halves. So there's no doubt Hampton can be an effective pitcher in the middle of the rotation.
Thomson was solid in his first year as a Brave in 2004. There's no reason to believe he won't fully recover from the injury that took him out of Game three of the playoffs. As many pitchers do, Thomson had his best season as a pro in a Braves uniform. Now he should be able to settle into a comfortable role where if he faces other team's fourth starters, he should have the advantage.
Horacio Ramirez, who started last season as the fourth starter behind Ortiz, Hampton, and Thomson, will now be the fifth starter. Of course, he's got to recover and bounce back from shoulder surgery he had in October. When Horacio got hurt in May, he was the Braves best pitcher. He's bounced back before from a serious injury, when he had Tommy John Surgery in 2001. If he can return to the form of early 2004, the Braves may not have his as the fifth starter very long.
Health is a big concern of this starting rotation. All five have injury questions. Smoltz's elbow must hold up; Hudson must be over his hip trouble; Hampton must bounce back from his knee injury; Thomson's side injury must not reappear; and Ramirez has to show his shoulder is sound. If all five stay healthy, this rotation could be one of the best, if not the best, in the game.
Bill Shanks can be reached at email@example.com
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