6. Can Mike Hampton return next season?

It's that time of the year again. Time to wonder if there's any way Mike Hampton can come back from another elbow injury. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has more.

A year ago the Atlanta Braves were counting on Mike Hampton to be apart of the 2007 starting rotation. They penciled him in as the third starter behind John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, hopeful the veteran left-hander would be able to bounce back from the Tommy John Surgery he had on September 26, 2005.

Hampton pitched a bit in the Instructional League, and despite some scarring that is usually normal when a pitcher comes off that procedure, everyone was still hopeful heading into camp Hampton would return and be productive again.

Then in early March Hampton strained a muscle in his side during batting practice. At first it was thought as a blessing in disguise, perhaps giving him a bit more time to get his arm ready for the season. But then in early April while throwing a bullpen session in Philadelphia Hampton felt more discomfort in his left elbow.

A trip to the doctor brought more horrible news. Hampton had another torn tendon in his elbow and had to have surgery on April 10th. The second surgery knocked him out for the second straight full season.

The Braves were devastated. The third starter was gone, and it forced the team to move up lefty Chuck James from the number four spot in the rotation, a position he was not able to adequately handle. And James' ascension into the middle of the rotation created a revolving door with the last two spots, which combined for an ERA of 6.33 for the season.

So Hampton's injury hurt, and while most people would argue the Braves shouldn't have counted on him in the first place, you can't blame them for having confidence in his potential return. He's a terrific athlete, and with the success rate of Tommy John patients, it made sense to believe he'd return and contribute in 2007.

But can he now, after two major operations, come back and be apart of the Braves' rotation in 2008? Well the Braves will probably not count on him, but yet not count him out. He's got to be in the conversation, even though it's a gamble to count on someone that has not pitched in a game for thirty months.

With the Braves needing help in the rotation, Atlanta has to gauge how much they'll consider Hampton for next season. It's likely the Braves will pursue two new starters this winter, and if Hampton does in fact return he'll have a chance to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Next season will be the last year of the huge eight-year, $121 million dollar deal Mike Hampton signed with the Colorado Rockies before the 2001 season. (BTW he's 53-48 during the contract so far). So if Hampton does prove in March that he is healthy, he's going to be in the rotation. Hampton's salary next year is $15 million, but the Braves have amortized the contract to where it's only around $8.25 in the books.

Hampton is a competitor and a terrific athlete, so you know he wants to show that he still can pitch. Plus, he has to show he has something left to prove going into the last year of this monster contract. If he doesn't comeback, it will perhaps go down as the biggest bust in baseball history.

The plan is for Hampton to pitch in November somewhere in Winter Ball. Then if all goes well, the Braves may have an idea of how likely it will be for Hampton to be apart of the rotation. But either way, considering the disaster at the back end of the rotation last season, expect the team to have plenty of insurance in case Hampton cannot return.

If Hampton does come back, the Braves rotation could be outstanding. It's very possible the team will bring Tom Glavine back as the number four-starter and then go after a number three starter with Edgar Renteria as the trade bait. So if Hampton were healthy and could join Glavine, Smoltz, and Hudson, the Braves could be World Series favorites next season.

But we know from experience that counting on Hampton is a gamble. The sad part is he actually pitched well when he was on the mound for the Braves. He was pitching great before he first had that tightness in his forearm in 2005. And in his first two seasons in Atlanta he averaged 13.5 wins and 8.5 losses, 181 innings pitched, and had an ERA of 4.05. If he could do anything close to that next season, the Braves could have a special season.

That's a big ‘if,' and we're used to a lot of ‘ifs' by now when it comes to Mike Hampton.

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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