5. Can Jorge Sosa repeat his 2005 performance

As Bill Shanks continues his 35-part series looking at the top questions facing the Braves this offseason, he analyzes Jorge Sosa. Will the Braves keep him in the rotation? Will they send him back to the bullpen? Or will they take advantage of his value and trade him? What do you think?

This is undoubtedly going to be one of the biggest questions facing the Braves' front office this winter. Can Jorge Sosa repeat his 2005 performance in 2006? Should he remain in the starting rotation? Should he return to the bullpen? Or should the Braves trade him and take advantage of his high value?

If you look past the rookies, Sosa was the biggest surprise of the 2005 season. Acquired the last day of spring training back in March for Nick Green, Sosa was expected to be a valuable member of the Braves' bullpen.

He performed well in that role before he was moved into the rotation, going 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA in 22 games. Then on June 14, with both Mike Hampton and John Thomson out with injuries, the Braves made Sosa a starter.

The right-hander had started 41 of 103 games he pitched with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from 2002-2004, so he had experience. He never dominated in that role, but then again who does with the Devil Rays. So the Braves knew that with his good stuff, it was possible that Sosa could give the team some good innings.

All Sosa did was go out and go 10-3 as a starter, with a 2.62 ERA in twenty starts. He allowed 98 hits in 107.2 innings pitched, 31 earned runs, 45 walks, and 68 strikeouts. He lasted five innings or more in all but two of his starts, and he solidified the Atlanta rotation after missing two important starters for most of the season.

So now you have to wonder if Sosa can do it again. Perhaps he was just misplaced as a reliever, and he needed to be a starter all along. His numbers, prior to 2005, were very similar. He had gone 9-22 in his 41 starts for the Devils Rays with a 5.14 ERA, 224 hits in 226 innings pitched. In his 62 games as a reliever, he had an ERA of 5.24, and had allowed 101 hits in 101.1 innings pitched. So he didn't do any better or worse as a starter or reliever, and the same can be said for what he did in Atlanta this season. He was 3-0 as a reliever with the Braves with a 2.31 ERA in twenty-four games.

It's obvious that his numbers improved once he got with a better team. That's what the Braves often look for: pitchers with good stuff that struggle with poor teams, but will more than likely improve once they get with a winner.

The Braves could keep Sosa in the rotation, hoping he will simply continue to pitch effectively there. With all the depth in the rotation, they could return him to the bullpen, an area that needs all the help it can get. Or they could simply take advantage of Sosa's increased value and trade him in a deal for a better player.

There has to be some temptation to keep Sosa in the rotation. If he went 10-3 in 20 starts, what could he do over the course of a full season? Maybe he was just waiting for his chance to pitch for a good team to show that he could be an effective starting pitcher. There's no doubt when he got his chance, he did exceptionally. The Braves could not have been happier with his performance.

Sosa will be eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter. His salary will probably double from the $650,000 he made in 2005. But he'll still be very affordable for a starter for the next three seasons. With John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, and the injured Mike Hampton earning large salaries, it does help to have a cheaper starter in the rotation that can give you solid innings.

It didn't seem like Sosa slowed down with more innings, so there shouldn't be more concern with the heavier workload. On the surface, there doesn't seem to be many worries at all. You just have to wonder if he can do it again.

However, with John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, and Horacio Ramirez expected to return next season, and with the team expected to pick up John Thomson's option, and with the presence of Kyle Davies, Anthony Lerew, and Chuck James, and not to mention the constant troubles the team has had with the bullpen, it might also be tempting for the team to send Sosa back to the bullpen.

Thomson could easily take back his number three spot in the rotation, the role he had in 2004. He proved he was healthy in September, and the Braves have always believed Thomson was a number three starter. Until he proves otherwise, Ramirez has pretty much settled into the role of a number four or five starter, and there is still hope he can become a number two or number three.

But the real reason Sosa could go back to the bullpen is the presence of these young pitchers. The Braves would really prefer to get Kyle Davies into the rotation full-time. He proved he was ready for the challenge with a terrific rookie season. And Anthony Lerew and Chuck James could both be ready for the same position with an impressive spring training.

So that gives the team six returning starters (including Sosa), along with two rookies who could prove ready to join the rotation. That depth is what the Braves always love. It's that flexibility that allows them to improve their team, one way or the other.

It's not like the Braves have to have Sosa in the rotation. If they feel there are no worries with Smoltz and Thomson's health, and if they feel confident that the young pitchers, in some combination, will produce, then it might be best if Sosa does return to the bullpen.

The Braves will no doubt improve the bullpen in some fashion this winter. Whether it's by re-signing Kyle Farnsworth, signing Billy Wagner, or by trading the now-expendable Johnny Estrada for another bullpen arm, there will already be another solid pitcher in the 2006 bullpen. And with Blaine Boyer, Macay McBride, and Joey Devine also expected back, adding Sosa will only make the bullpen that much better.

The last option is for the Braves to take advantage of Sosa's increased value and to trade him this winter. How many teams in desperate need of pitching would love the inexpensive Sosa in their rotation? Probably most of the other twenty-nine teams.

If the Braves target a top-notch experienced starting pitcher this winter, one that will join Smoltz and Hudson and make the Braves instant favorites next season, Sosa could easily be used in a package deal. The combination of Sosa, a thirteen-game winner in 2005, a young pitcher, and a young position player, both areas of excess in the organization, could bring one hell of a pitcher in return - as long as the team could afford him.

So Sosa's terrific 2005 season gives the team plenty of options. I believe General Manager John Schuerholz will consider Sosa to be a member of the rotation - as of now. But if he gets involved in any trade talks that could bring a star to Atlanta, he will listen if the other team asks for Sosa in return. Why not? Even if Sosa goes on to become a consistent winner with another team, the Braves should have other options to step in, pitchers like Anthony Lerew and Chuck James. And remember, the Braves will hopefully get Mike Hampton back in 2007, so that gives the team additional flexibility to use a starter in a deal this winter.

You've got to be good to be lucky, and you've got to be lucky to be good. The Braves' scouts knew Sosa was the type of player that could exceed what he had done with the Devil Rays; that's why they recommended him to Schuerholz last March. And now that Sosa has proved he is a solid major leaguer, it just adds to the flexibility that Schuerholz always craves when forming a roster. It's that flexibility that has enabled him to construct fourteen straight division winning teams, and whether Sosa stays in the rotation, goes back to the bullpen, or is used in a trade, his emergence this past season will only help the Atlanta Braves in 2006.

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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