7. Can Mike Hampton return next season?

Bill Shanks continues his 35-part series on the top questions facing the Braves with a report on Mike Hampton, who will try to return in 2007 after missing all of this season after Tommy John surgery.

Of all the circumstances that led to the Braves' demise in 2006, perhaps none was more forgotten than the absence of Mike Hampton. Love him or hate him, if healthy he could have provided 200 innings and 12-15 wins. But after having Tommy John Surgery on September 26, 2005, he missed the entire 2006 season.

Hampton was supposed to resurrect his career when the Braves acquired him from Colorado (via Florida) in November of 2002. He was a train wreck in the Mile High City, a shadow of the pitcher that won 22 games with the Astros in 1999. His first two years with Atlanta were decent, and definitely showed that while he might not be as good as he was in 1999, he certainly wasn't as bad as he was in 2001-2002 with the Rockies.

But Hampton showed glimpses that he was returning to form as a top National League pitcher. Between July of 2004 through mid-May of 2005, Hampton was 15-2 with a 2.55 ERA. Hampton left a game on May 14th with a strained left forearm, which was the first indication he had a serious problem. He would return for one start in July and then two starts in August, but between his forearm pain, a herniated disc in his back, and knee trouble, Hampton was done for the season. Then it was learned he had to have the Tommy John procedure.

Hampton has had the entire season to recover without the usual rush to get back into action. The Braves knew he was not going to play at all this season, even though it was remotely possible he could have pitched late in the year. Hampton's contract was covered by insurance, and the Braves were not going to jeopardize the savings by rushing him back when he might not have been ready in the first place.

So having all of last winter, plus all of this season, and then all of this coming offseason, Hampton will have more than enough time to fully recover from his injury. He's also had time to rehab his knee, which was also scoped out last winter.

Hampton is perhaps the best athlete on the Atlanta roster, which makes the chances for a full recovery even better. It also makes you believe that if anyone is going to fully recover, especially from a surgery that now has a pretty good track record, it will be Hampton. He was out throwing in the outfield back in May, and just last week faced hitters for the first time in a simulated game at Turner Field.

The plan now is for him to pitch a couple of innings down in the Instructional League (I hope I'll see him when I'm down there this week). Hampton, who lives about an hour away from the Braves' training complex at Disney, just wanted to face a few more hitters to give himself even more confidence heading into the winter.

Bobby Cox, who will watch Hampton in Orlando, was thrilled with how Hampton looked last week. Some of the other pitchers were shocked at how lively his stuff was in the simulated game, particularly after all this time off. So far, so good in his recovery.

Hampton did show the Braves that, when healthy, he can be a very effective pitcher. One thing that helped him here was not being shoved into the role of the ace of the staff. And with John Smoltz and Tim Hudson in front of him, Hampton can relax and simply be a third starter.

The prospect of a normal season from Smoltz, the return of the ‘real' Hudson, and the recovery of Hampton makes the rotation look awfully strong for next season. If those three pitch like they are capable of pitching, that might be the top trio in the game. This team desperately needs to have more than two pitchers log 200 or more innings each in a season, something that has not happened since 2001 when Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Burkett did it. And Smoltz, Hudson, and Hampton, if healthy, should be able to do it.

GM John Schuerholz has said that it's vitally important for the Braves to return to its pitching-first ways, and the return of Hampton is key to that happening. Sure, there are concerns about any pitcher coming back from a major surgery like Tommy John. But we've got to remember that Hampton was able to spend more time than usual in rehabbing from the surgery; it wasn't the normal time frame that most pitchers follow. That extra time will do nothing but have Hampton even more prepared to go at it from day one next season.

Look at John Foster, who had Tommy John Surgery in early June. He won't be pitching against live competition again until early June of 2007. So he might not be ready to contribute until mid-July or August, after he undoubtedly spends time on rehab assignments in the minor leagues. But Hampton started throwing last week and will now have the entire offseason to continue his rehabilitation and the strengthening of his arm.

There is concern about Hudson, and we don't know who might fill in the bottom of the rotation after Chuckie James. Plus, how long can we expect Smoltz to be automatic? So that's what makes Hampton's complete recovery and return vitally important to this team next season.

Most clubs are thinking right now how they can acquire a potential 15-game winner for next season. But the Braves have one coming back in Mike Hampton, and it could be the difference that gets the Braves back on track to being a club known for its strong starting pitching.

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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