Just get Smoltz on the mound - somehow

John Smoltz is hurting, but the Braves will hurt more if he does not return to the mound - in some capacity. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks has more.

A severely inflamed bicep tendon and inflammation of the rotation cuff.

Heck that even sounds painful, doesn't it? Yes, it's not surgery, but the diagnosis for Braves' pitcher John Smoltz is still not great. He's got no timetable, no idea of when he'll return to the Braves' rotation.

Or even if he'll return to the Braves rotation.

Smoltz told the Atlanta Constitution Tuesday night he would consider moving back to the Braves bullpen. It's unfortunately gotten to this point, where Smoltz may not even start another game in his major league career.

We've all seen the pain Smoltz has been in this month. He's had to take deep breaths in between his pitches. He would occasionally walk around the mound and then stare into the upper deck, all to simply delay his next pitch as long as possible. And when he'd occasionally drop down and throw a pitch sidearm, we'd all gasp knowing what that signaled.

Smoltz has thrown hard for twenty-plus years, and people who throw hard rarely avoid throwing in pain. Tom Glavine is 42 years old, and since he never threw hard, he has never had arm trouble (knock on wood). Greg Maddux is also 42, and we know he's never had to deal with the pain Smoltz has battled.

Counting John Smoltz out is as dangerous as pitching to Chipper Jones right now. There is no way we should ever write the epitaph of his career until he tells us to fire up the computer. This man is a warrior, fighting father time tooth and nail. He's not ready to give up yet, and we're not ready to see him go.

Has there ever been a major league pitcher this successful in this much pain? Smoltz has been practically lethal on the mound this season – while in pain. He allowed only six runs in his five starts, while striking out 36 batters in 27 innings pitched. It's the best start he's had to a season since returning to the rotation in 2005.

Many observers believed he'd never last this long as a starter, as three-plus years probably blows away the over-under on that bet. Smoltz was determined to prove he could still help this team in the role that will eventually lead him to the Hall of Fame.

When he is on that mound as a starting pitcher, not many are better – even when he's in pain. A hurting Smoltz is better than 95% of the starting pitchers in this game, which proves how valuable he's become in his return to the rotation.

But now the Braves, and Smoltz, are facing reality. He may never be able to make it as a starting pitcher anymore. The wear and tear on that shoulder (and Lord knows the elbow too) is just too much. Now we're looking at the same reasons he moved to the bullpen in the first place – to try to get as much out of him in the time he has left in this game.

Again, there is no doubt John Smoltz is not ready to hang it up. He's just not. It's not time for that, and he knows it. But his admission Tuesday night that he would consider going back to the bullpen is very telling. It shows that he's still, even seven years after he did it the first time, willing to do whatever he can to help the Atlanta Braves win.

Now let's not be mistaken here, Smoltz was never totally happy in the Braves bullpen. He always believed he was better suited for the rotation, but he also knew that was the best way to help the Braves win at that time – at least until he could strengthen his arm to return to where he belonged.

Smoltz may not have that luxury now of going back there. He may have only one avenue for continuing his career, and he knows he can help this team by being a dominant closer.

Obviously, the injuries to Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan triggered the conversation. If they had been healthy, this may have never come up. It would only be about getting Smoltz back to the rotation. But this may be a blessing in disguise. It might be the only way to get Smoltz back on the mound.

He may just not have it in him to be a starter anymore. It's a realization that is going to be hard for him to accept, but the type of player he is, he's just going to try to find the way he can help this team win.

And with Soriano and Moylan both out, that way may be through the bullpen.

There is no doubt that if his arm can handle it, Smoltz would be wildly successful. He was the most dominant closer in the game for those three-plus years. Smoltz had 154 saves and was simply as close to a guarantee in that role as you can get.

If Smoltz does go to the pen, he could be joined in late-May by lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez, due back from Tommy John surgery. That would allow ‘Gonzo' to simply be the main lefty reliever, which could drop Will Ohman down even more in the pecking order.

And then, if and when Soriano returns, the Braves would immediately have the best bullpen in the league.

And considering all the trouble the Braves have had since Smoltz left that role (Kolb, Reitsma, Wickman, etc.), that is tempting.

But could the rotation handle the loss of Smoltz? Well, isn't it ironic that the man who replaced Smoltz on the roster Tuesday night was Glavine, who had been on the disabled list himself for the first time in his career. And isn't it ironic that the Braves may be close to getting Mike Hampton back on the mound in a major league game.

Yes, we know, you'll believe it when you see it. All of us will. But there is no denying that the return of Hampton would be huge, particularly with the possibility of Smoltz leaving the rotation for the bullpen. And while we've all laughed and mocked Hampton for his J.D. Drew-like luck, we all have to realize the impact of what his return could mean for this team.

The bottom line is when Hampton was on the mound in spring training, he was outstanding. He looked like the old Mike Hampton – remember, the one that actually pitched in the major leagues back in the Truman administration. See, there we go again. But if Hampton can return, that Braves rotation is not going to be too bad.

Tim Hudson would obviously take over as the true ace, with Smoltz no longer there to prop him up. Glavine would be a pretty solid number two, even though that's more we expected him to be when he was signed last winter. Go ahead and pencil Jair Jurrjens as the number three starter. He's pitched that well this month that it's comfortable doing that.

Then you would have Hampton as the number four starter. Now if Hampton stays healthy, he could be a pretty darn good number four. Follow him with either Chuck James, Jeff Bennett, Buddy Carlyle, or even Jo Jo Reyes as the number five.

That's not too bad. In fact, that's showing the depth that Braves General Manager Frank Wren envisioned when he constructed this roster this past winter.

Sure, there are still a lot of ‘ifs' in that scenario. There's still a lot that has to happen. But it's all very, very possible.

But the key, without a doubt, is to simply having Smoltz out there on that mound. He's just so dominant, so untouchable, that he's just got to be out there pitching for this team.

He might not be doing what he prefers to do, but there is no doubt (even in his mind) that Smoltz as the Braves' closer will give this team a chance to win this season. And considering the month of April that team has had, with the constant injury stories popping up one after the other, that may be exactly what it needs for the next five months.



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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