15. Can Soriano and Moylan return in 2009?

How good might the bullpen be if Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan return in 2009?

It should have been clear in spring training something was wrong with Rafael Soriano. He wasn't on a normal schedule and was getting treatment on his elbow. There was hope when he was able to break camp with the big league team, but that didn't last very long.

Soriano would pitch in four games in the first week of the season before having to be shut down with elbow trouble. For several months tests would not reveal any ligament damage. Soriano even returned in late May for five games and then again in late July. But the soreness continued.

Finally, in late August, Soriano had ulnar nerve transposition and a small bone spur removed from his right elbow. The Braves expect Soriano back for spring training and to be ready to go on Opening Day.

When Soriano went down in April, Peter Moylan took over as the closer. But Moylan only lasted two games before he would be shut down with elbow trouble. The Braves tried to work him through it, but Moylan had Tommy John surgery in early May.

The fact that Soriano and Moylan combined for 21 games between them is part of the reason the Braves won only 72 games last season. This was a bullpen that was supposed to be strong, and even made stronger after the expected return of Mike Gonzalez. But losing the top two relievers is not something most teams can survive.

Both are expected to return in 2009, but as always with pitchers that have elbow surgery, you never know if they can regain their effectiveness. But many pitchers do come back even stronger, which is what the Braves need from both Soriano and Moylan.

Soriano has had elbow trouble in the past, so this will be his second recovery from an operation. He'll be 29 years old in December, so Soriano still has youth on his side. If his recovery goes well, there's no reason to believe Soriano can't be effective once again.

Moylan will turn 30 next month, and you have to hope that his young arm will heal quickly and get him back on the mound. Moylan is a bit different from other pitchers in that he hasn't been on the mound for his entire career. And now that he's got a ‘new' elbow with the TJ surgery, Moylan's arm should be even more resilient.

The only question will be when these two can return. Soriano will be ahead of Moylan, and that would help tremendously if he could be ready on Opening Day. Moylan's anniversary will be in early May, so he may miss four to six weeks of the upcoming season before he can return.

If both are able to come back, the Braves will have a very strong bullpen. There was tremendous anticipation for the trio of Soriano, Moylan, and Mike Gonzalez to be in the bullpen together. And now, with Soriano and Moylan operated on, there's even more hope all three can be healthy and effective in 2009.

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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