1. Can John Smoltz repeat his 2005 season?

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks starts a 35-part series that will look at the big questions facing the Braves' organization this winter. The first part examines whether or not John Smoltz can bounce back and have another strong season as a starter in 2006.

Coming into the 2005 season, we were all concerned about John Smoltz. Could he once again be one of the best starting pitchers in the game, as he was for much of the 1990s? And after he was bombed in his first game back on Opening Day, the concerns were very serious.

But those worries eased a bit the more Smoltz pitched. The more he pitched, the lower his ERA got. And if the game on April 10th didn't convince you that he would be ok, when he struck out fifteen New York Mets, nothing was going to. He was outstanding, and that game proved that he was, in fact, back as a starter.

We kept waiting for his arm to explode, kind of like what happened to Jay Powell later in the year, but instead Smoltz just kept rolling along. He made thirty-three starts, missing only a couple. Smoltz did, however, battle nagging injuries that kept him from being 100% physically. But for a 38-year-old coming off several arm injuries and a stint in the bullpen, he did pretty darn well.

Smoltz finished the season with a 14-7 record and an ERA of 3.06. Take away that horrible first game in Florida and his ERA would have been 2.84. He allowed 210 hits in 230.2 innings pitched, walked 53, and struck out 169. He had six no-decisions in the second half of the season, so Smoltz could have easily won twenty games with a little bit of luck.

Not bad for a guy that had made a total of five starts since 1999.

But the worries that popped up at the end of the season once again have Braves' fans concerned. Was the workload too much for him? Will it be like a normal winter of rest, so that his arm can be refreshed and he can bounce back next season? Or is this just the beginning of the end?

If you ask Smoltz, he's going to paint a rosier picture than it probably actually is. But there is no mistaking the fact that he was hurting, even last Thursday in Game 2 against the Astros. He's scheduled to get his shoulder checked out soon, and with a little luck, that winter rest will be all he'll need.

Smoltz has repeatedly said that he will not go through another surgery. So if the report at the doctor's office is not good, and they recommend another procedure, Smoltz might just walk away. But it would have to be something really serious.

The most veteran Brave will turn thirty-nine next May, and he's determined to win one more World Series before he retires. That burning desire to succeed is what carried him through this season, and it will propel him to continue his quest for another ring.

As long as the report from the MRI is ok, expect Smoltz to be fine. You have to wonder whether the pain he's had the last few weeks was the "normal" pain many starters experience late in the year after they've logged a lot of innings. If that's all it is, then even though Smoltz hasn't come off a season as a starter in six seasons, he'll know how to recuperate from a grueling year. But if it's more than that, then we'll probably be getting a notice about a major press conference at Turner Field announcing his retirement, since he's said there's no way he's going to have major surgery again.

Betting against John Smoltz is almost like betting against the Braves. Every year experts are tempted to pick the Phillies or Mets or Marlins. But every season the Braves win. And it's also tempting to write Smoltz's baseball obituary, especially when you see him out on the mound stretching that arm like he did last week, just giving you the evidence that he's not 100%. But that's just the kind of doubt Smoltz wants people to have. He enjoys proving people he can do what they say he can't. People said he couldn't be a closer, and look what he did. Then they said he couldn't go back to the rotation, and he proved he could this season. He loves that. It's a challenge that he enjoys. And his determination is what makes you say, "Until he proves us wrong, don't bet against him."

If John Smoltz is healthy, the Braves have one of the best pitchers in the game. Look what he did last week in the playoffs. We all knew he wasn't 100%, but yet he went out there like it was 1991 all over again. He dominated that game, carving the Astros up one by one. And if he's back next season, why should we expect anything less?

Tomorrow we'll discuss whether or not the Braves should go after another top-flight starting pitcher, which might be even more needed should there be lingering questions about the healthy of John Smoltz.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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