What happens if Hampton can't go?

So Mike Hampton is not progressing as he hoped he would at this point in his recovery. Is there reason to be concerned? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has more.

The Braves are holding their breath a bit about lefty starter Mike Hampton. He had some discomfort in his surgically-repaired left elbow this week and expressed some concern about his recovery.

Manager Bobby Cox did not seem as worried, which is a good sign. Perhaps the competitive Hampton is just not happy that he's not further along in his rehab. Maybe he thinks he should not be feeling any pain at all, when in fact what he is feeling is somewhat normal for people coming back from this operation.

Hampton had Tommy John surgery in September of 2005, seventeen months ago. Most pitchers come back from that procedure within 12-18 months. When Opening Day rolls around, it'll be exactly eighteen months.

With a player as athletic as Hampton, you would think he would be on track to be at 100% at the start of the season. But each player is different in their recovery, and Hampton is simply looking for some good signs.

There are a few scenarios to consider here:

1. Hampton sticks around in Orlando in April at Extended Spring Training to strengthen his elbow and then makes two starts for Richmond - missing only the month of April.

2. Hampton spends all of April in Florida and then takes all of May to make rehab starts in the Braves' minor league system.

3. Hampton misses considerable time (at least half the season).

It's unlikely Hampton would miss more than three months. If he does, there might be reason to wonder if he will ever pitch again. But chances are Hampton's just going to need additional time to strengthen his elbow, whether it's a month or two.

But what happens to this Atlanta rotation if Hampton cannot go on Opening Day? They were counting on him to hopefully make thirty starts and come close to 200 innings. But now that even looks unlikely.

If Hampton only misses the month of April, then the Braves fill-in starter will probably only have to make two or three starts. But if there's a concern Hampton will miss more than four to six weeks, don't be shocked if General Manager John Schuerholz looks around for an extra starter later this month.

But let's look at some of the internal candidates to fill-in for Hampton if he misses time in the rotation.

* Lance Cormier - The right-hander was actually better as a starter (4.31 ERA in 9 games) than as a reliever (5.96 ERA in 20 games) last year. He did particularly well in his five September starts, posting a 3.25 ERA with a 2-1 record. Cormier gave up a couple of runs in his first game a few days ago, but he's got a big supporter in Bobby Cox, who has proclaimed Cormier a candidate for the fifth rotation spot for most of the winter.

* Anthony Lerew - Last year at this time Lerew was actually a candidate to be Atlanta's closer. He went back to Richmond as a starter and struggled for the first half of the season. After a return to Mississippi to work with Kent Willis, Lerew improved and had a 2.13 ERA in his last eleven games. The Braves feel they've straightened out some mechanical problems Lerew had last season and smoothed out his delivery. So he's just got to go out and get people out in March to have a chance.

* Macay McBride - Cox has hinted around that McBride could be an option. It seems that if Hampton had to miss significant time the Braves might then turn to McBride, who was very successful as a starter in the minor leagues. He was the South Atlantic League's Pitcher of the Year in 2002 when he was 12-8 with a 2.12 ERA in 25 starts for Macon. If the bullpen looks solid this spring, it might tempt the Braves to feel comfortable enough with moving one of their most effective relievers in the second half of last season. McBride would really love to start, so this should not be ruled out at all, particularly if Hampton has to miss more than a month.

* Matt Harrison - Cox keeps talking up Harrison, who is the rookie pitcher making the best impression this spring. Harrison is still only 21 years old, but he's coming off a very impressive season in 2006. The lefty was 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA in 26 games between Myrtle Beach and Mississippi. He's very advanced for his age and some more good appearances will give him a legit chance at heading north with the big league club. Harrison has been an unheralded prospect for too long, and he's finally getting the attention he deserves as a very solid prospect. Cox is not afraid to give kids a chance, and if Harrison shows him he's ready Cox might just place him in the rotation.

***

Those seem to be the top four internal options to compete for a job if Hampton is unable to go on Opening Day. There's still a lot of baseball to be played this month, so there's no reason to panic just yet. But this is a concern. The Braves are counting on Hampton a great deal this season, so if he's not ready the story of who will replace him will be a major issue.

The Braves are fortunate to have four solid arms as potential fill-ins for Hampton, but as always GM John Schuerholz will be on the hunt for a possible trade. With several players on the fringe this spring (Matt Diaz, Tony Pena, Jr., Pete Orr, Chad Paronto) and other prospects that could be dangled (Lerew, Yunel Escobar, Salty?), the Braves have players to offer up if a starter is needed.

But Hampton has to first show what his status is this month. Maybe he will start to have less discomfort in his elbow and have a chance to be ready on Opening Day. But if not, the Braves have to be ready to replace the veteran in the rotation.



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. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.


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