Could 'Mike & Mike' be the keys this season?

It's late January, so there are all kinds of theories as to what might be important this season. But could Gonzalez and Hampton be the keys for another run at the playoffs? The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has more.

Baseball fans all over the country are talking about what their favorite team must do to win this season. There are a lot of sentences that start with 'if,'and every team has a lot of ifs three weeks before spring training starts.

The Atlanta Braves have a bunch, don't they? But it's nothing unusual. Any team trying to get from the 84-win mark to over 90 and back into the postseason would be in that position. You wonder, however, if two particular pitchers are more important in solving the 'if' issue than anyone else on the roster.

They are both named Mike. They are both coming off serious arm injuries. And they both could make a huge impact if they return and are healthy this season.

Some fans are going to tell you to not even mention Mike Hampton in a conversation about this season. We've been disappointed before, they'd tell you. We counted on him last spring, they'd claim. But the Braves are still paying the lefty starter, so in a way they have to count on him to some extent.

Hampton hasn't pitched in a big league game since August of 2005. He was really good that season, perhaps the best since he had joined the Braves two years earlier. Atlanta finally had the Mike Hampton that had been such a big winner in Houston and New York, but then things spiraled out of control.

Hampton had to have Tommy John Surgery in September of 2005, which killed his 2006 season. Then when he was coming back last spring, Hampton tore his oblique muscle in his side, which would have kept him out until May. But as he was rehabbing that injury, Hampton started to have additional elbow discomfort. It was then learned Hampton had a torn flexor tendon in his elbow, and surgery in April knocked out his 2007 season.

Fans were ready to see how Hampton would do in his latest comeback, but then on Thanksgiving Day two months ago Hampton strained his hamstring. The sad thing was he actually looked good on the mound before the injury. His delivery looked great for someone that had missed so much time, and his pitches looked surprisingly crisp for his first ‘official' time on the mound.

Braves' General Manager Frank Wren said this past week that Hampton's rehab from the hamstring has gone well and everything is on track for him to have a full spring training. Nothing would be better news for a Braves' team that had so much trouble in the rotation last season.

You wonder how much better the Braves would have been if Hampton had been able to pitch in 2007. They had so much trouble in the rotation after John Smoltz and Tim Hudson that we can only imagine how many more games they might have won last season if Hampton had been healthy. The Braves painfully learned the importance of a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, a role Hampton might have thrived in if he had been able to pitch.

So now what should we expect? Is there any way, after so many injuries and so much time on the shelf, Hampton can return and actually be a contributor? Well, again, since Hampton is still getting paid, the Braves have to count on him. If he does come back and is healthy, he will be in the rotation. You're not going to sit someone or demote someone making that type of money.

I've said all along the strategy I would take with Hampton is ‘you can't count on him, and you can't count him out.' Wren agreed with that when he was on our radio show back in November. When creating his roster for this season, Wren tried to plan for the possibility Hampton would be apart of his rotation, but also to provide the depth for it in case he's unable to return. Unlike last year, that depth is much stronger and a much better insurance policy is in place.

If Hampton can come back, he'll be either the fourth or fifth starter. You could imagine Bobby Cox being careful with Hampton if he does return, so the fifth starter's role (which would be a lower expectation when it comes to innings pitched) may be more suitable. He could be right behind Smoltz, Hudson, and now Tom Glavine if he's the fourth starter. And if Hampton is healthy and is the fourth starter, the Braves would perhaps have the best fourth starter in the game.

If Hampton does not come back, for whatever reason, the Braves now have pretty good numbers behind him. Chuck James would probably be the fourth starter, and now that James' shoulder is rested he could be much more effective in that role. And then there are a number of pitchers that would compete for the fifth spot in the rotation: Jair Jurrjens, Jo Jo Reyes, Jeff Bennett, Ryan Drese, and even Charlie Morton.

That's a heck of a lot better than having to go find Mark Redman in his Oklahoma basement, as the Braves did last season when Hampton went down.

But a healthy Hampton, behind Smoltz, Hudson, and Glavine, could make the rotation very strong. Before you laugh, remember how well Hampton pitched right before he got hurt. If he's anywhere near that level, as a number four starter, the Braves would be in great shape.

What if Hampton could at least come back and make 15-20 starts? Forget about him being ready on Opening Day for a moment. What if he could at least come back sometime in June and then contribute to the rotation for the rest of the season? That would be like adding a front-line starter in a trade on Deadline Day. It could make a huge difference in the Braves' chances to get back to the postseason.

Yes, it might be a longshot. Yes, we need to wait until we see Hampton out there on the mound before we get too carried away. But no one more than Mike Hampton himself wants to see him contribute this season. He's a tremendous competitor, and you've got to know Hampton wants to prove he can still pitch after being off for so long. And this might be his last chance.

The other Mike is Mike Gonzalez, lost to the Braves after having Tommy John Surgery last June. Gonzalez was acquired from Pittsburgh twelve months ago to help fix the Braves' bullpen, and before the injury ‘Gonzo' was doing just that. He had a 1.59 ERA in 18 games and was a major force in the Braves' bullpen with Rafael Soriano and Bob Wickman.

Gonzalez is already throwing, and he's told teammates that he is on track to be back even earlier than the All-Star Break projection. Boy, if Gonzalez could get back and spend half the season in that bullpen. It could be really, really good.

Again, like the case with Hampton, getting Gonzalez back in midseason would almost be like making a major trade on July 31st and getting back an All-Star caliber reliever. That's what Gonzalez is: an upper echelon lefty reliever. And his return to the Braves could be dramatically important.

The Braves have Soriano has the closer, so there is not a hole there. And with the additions of the newcomers (Will Ohman, Chris Resop, Jeff Ridgway, and maybe even Ryan Drese) and the new kids (Manny Aocsta and Blaine Boyer) there is depth. But again, getting an impact reliever like Gonzalez could make a huge difference. Putting Gonzalez as the main lefty to help set up Soriano would be crucial if the Braves are to advance into October.

You hate to put too much pressure on these guys. Both pitchers want to come back even more than we want them to come back. And if they do come back, there's no guarantee they'll be as effective as they were before they left. But simply going on their performance history, how they've done in the past, if they did come back and they were as good as they were before the Braves would get a huge boost.

Yes, these are two big ‘ifs' for this season. But these two pitchers are due a little luck, as are the Braves. And their potential return could give the Braves a much better chance to get back to where they want to be: playing baseball in October.


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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