4. Can Smoltz be the Braves' ace in 2007?

The Braves Show continues its series on the top issues facing the Braves this winter. Can John Smoltz be the ace next season? Bill Shanks talks about the Braves' veteran right-hander.

His critics said his arm would never hold up. He had so many surgeries that there was no way John Smoltz could return to his dominating ways as a starting pitcher.

But boy hasn't he proved them wrong.

I remember interviewing Smoltz before the 2005 season. I had never heard anyone so determined to not only succeed, but to prove people wrong. By then the Braves' front office was on his bandwagon, but it took him a while to convince them that he could, once again, be a dominant starter. And once they said they were going to give him that chance, he was determined as hell to prove he was right.

Know one knows their own body better than John Smoltz. He knew, with no hesitation, that he'd be able to be a starter again - and a good one. He's been more than good. He's been exceptional. He's been an ace.

After a stellar 14-7 season in 2005, Smoltz was 16-9 this past season with a 3.49 ERA. He tied with five others for the league lead in victories, was third in strikeouts with 211, and fourth in innings pitched with 232. At the age of 39, he has an outside chance at winning the National League Cy Young Award.

Smoltz started off the season a bit slow, going 1-2 in April with a 4.09 ERA in his first five starts. But he bounced back with a strong month of May, going 3-0 with a 3.19 in six starts. As everyone did, Smoltz struggled in June with an 0-3 record. But he bounced back to go 4-0 in July with an ERA of 3.00. Smoltz was 11-4 after July 1st with an ERA of 3.44.

There was some worry that Smoltz might have been running out of gas late in the season, when he had a three-game stretch from August 31st through September 11th that saw him allow 16 runs in 13 innings. All three games were crucial, as the Braves were still in the pennant race. Smoltz was disappointed in his performances, but he scoffed at the notion he was wearing down and that it was because of his age.

He proved he still had some gas left in his tank when he finished the season with 18 scoreless innings pitched over a span of two and a half games, a feat for which he was mighty proud.

So how long can John Smoltz go? He'll be 40 years old next May, but he shows no signs of slowing down. He's almost the type of pitcher that you have to believe in until he proves otherwise. How can you doubt this guy? He's getting older, but he seems to be getting better.

Smoltz would be helped if Tim Hudson became more of an ace pitcher, which is something Smoltz himself wished for back in spring training. And there's little doubt next year's return of Mike Hampton will also take some of the pressure off Smoltz. This season, with all the injuries to the starters and the mediocrity of Hudson, Smoltz had pretty much all the pressure on his shoulders in the big games. And while he's good, Smoltz is not perfect, and we shouldn't expect him to be.

So if the rotation is strengthened, and it should be simply with Hampton's return, Smoltz might be even better. He won't have to feel that he's the lone ranger, and instead can pass some of the pressure off to the other pitchers.

And then there's the chance that his old friend Tom Glavine might join him in the rotation. Rumor has it that Glavine will pitch either in New York or in Atlanta next season, and you know the chance to pitch with Smoltz again will be tempting for the lefty. Smoltz was not happy when the Braves failed to re-sign Glavine, and it's no secret really that he would like to be reunited. Even though both would be in their 40s next season, you have to wonder if being back together would rejuvenate both of them even more.

Smoltz is an absolute pleasure to watch pitch. His performance on Sunday, as the Astros were trying to remain alive in the playoff hunt, was spectacular. If the Braves get back to the playoffs next year, there is no reason to doubt that Smoltz will once again be clutch; he is, as you know, the most successful pitcher in playoff history. Who would you want more than Smoltz to get the ball in the postseason?

Don't be surprised if the Braves extend Smoltz's contract through the 2008 season. He hinted that he would like to pitch past 2007, and you know he'd prefer to finish his career as a Brave and for Bobby Cox. The Braves would be foolish to let Smoltz finish elsewhere, and after the little "homeboy" incident with GM John Schuerholz, you would think they would like to show there are no hard feelings and have him stay for at least one more season.

Look, John Smoltz is about to be 40 years old next season, so you have to go year-to-year. But after his two solid seasons as a starter, there is no reason to think he's about to slow down. He's still the best ‘big game' pitcher of this era, and even as the Braves have to prepare for the post-Smoltz period of its history, they need to use him for as long as possible.

Until someone knocks him out of the job, John Smoltz will remain the Braves' ace. And this team will be better off as long as that can continue.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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