4. How long can Smoltz remain the ace?

In many ways John Smoltz is the Atlanta Braves. But how long can he keep up this excellent pitching? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks continues the series on the Top 35 questions facing the Atlanta organization.

When John Smoltz signed his contract extension in April, he did so knowing that his new deal would pay him as an ace pitcher. He'll get $14 million next season and then options the next two seasons that could pay him either $12 or $13 million. But the question is, since he'll be 41 years old next season, can Smoltz continue to be an ace for this Braves' team?

We all know his history, and we all shudder every time he drops down and throws a pitch sidearm. But we also know that John Smoltz is arguably the best athlete to ever put on a Braves' uniform. He has defied logic, repeatedly beating down that ghost that wants to put a curse on his arm every single season.

This past season included plenty of worry, as Smoltz had to leave a game in Milwaukee with an injury. The right shoulder was once again a bother, but a stint on the disabled list in July seemed to do the trick. He came back with a vengeance, and if you take away John's last game in Philadelphia last week, he had an ERA of 3.22 in his last fourteen games.

Smoltz said time and time again that this season was his best season ever. He gave up more than three runs in only four of his 32 starts, a phenomenal ratio of solid starts. That's about as close as you're going to get to defining an ace pitcher.

The fear of an injury will always be there with Smoltz. We knew when he became a starter again three years ago we would have to live with that fear until the day he retired. But in a way, you almost have to treat Smoltz like a transistor radio. You've got to keep it on for as long as possible, and when the batteries run out, they run out.

Eventually, Smoltz will wear out, but no one is dumb enough to bet against him not finishing out this contract, which could run three more years through his 44th birthday. He's the best competitor on this team, and he's charged with getting this team another World Series title before he calls it quits.

Since Smoltz is now in his 40s, the hope is the burden of being an ace will not be as heavy for him next season. He tried to hand the baton to Tim Hudson in 2006, but the pressure was too much and Hudson had his worst season. But Hudson bounced back to have his best season as a Brave this past season, so it might be time now for him to take the reigns as the Braves' number one starter.

Either way, there's little to doubt that as long as he stays healthy, Smoltz will continue to be a top-of-the-rotation starter for the Braves. He's got to be one of the most feared pitchers in the game. Teams can't enjoy facing someone who could be the modern-day Tom Seaver.

If the Braves bring Tom Glavine back, which is looking more and more probable every day, you also have to wonder if that will further inspire Smoltz to get the Braves back to the playoffs. He's the most successful pitcher in postseason history, and Smoltz's performance will be key to getting the Braves back where he believes they belong.

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 be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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