2. Should the Braves go after a top starter?

A's lefty starter Barry Zito

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks continues his 35-part series on the main questions facing the Braves this winter. Question number two discusses whether or not the Braves should go after another top-flight starting pitcher, much like they did last December when they acquired Tim Hudson.

It would seem on the surface that the Atlanta Braves are not in need of a starting pitcher. They have John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Horacio Ramirez, and Jorge Sosa expected to return from the 2005 rotation. Plus they have a $4.75 million option on John Thomson. Then you have three young pitchers, Kyle Davies, Anthony Lerew, and Chuck James, who could easily state a case for being ready to step into the rotation full-time.

But we know John Schuerholz. And we know that pitching is always the top priority.

Last winter the Braves were prepared to place John Smoltz back in the rotation, but they also saw an opportunity to bring a hometown boy back to the south. Tim Hudson was a no-brainer; the A's were going to trade him, and this was where he always wanted to play. So that big trade was really not that big of a surprise when looking back on it.

The loss of Mike Hampton for 2006 does create somewhat of a worry, despite the tremendous quantity of starters on hand. Hampton was the perfect number three starter behind Smoltz and Hudson. But we only got to see that trio together for six weeks before Hampton went down with an injury. Now that he's gone for next season, you wonder if the desire may be there to add another top starter to backup Smoltz and Hudson.

The Braves must also answer the question of whether or not Jorge Sosa can repeat his 2005 performance. If they knew he would go 13-3 again, there would be no worries. But you have to wonder if Sosa's season was just a fluke. That's got to be natural to question. Can he do it again? That uncertainty does give reason for concern.

And then there's Smoltz, who truthfully presents the main reason we would even entertain thinking about going out and getting another top starter. Smoltz is scheduled to see a doctor soon, perhaps even getting a MRI to make sure nothing is wrong with that shoulder. If something is wrong, then the answer to this question is ‘yes.' And if there are any concerns at all, then don't be shocked if Schuerholz goes fishing once again.

Another reason to at least explore a trade for a big-time starter is our depth. The Braves are loaded, and we are one of a few teams that can package several players together to get a major trade completed. In fact, we are so deep at some positions, some might even contend that a three-for-one trade, much like the one we made with Oakland last December, would help alleviate some of the clutter at the top levels of the organization.

So with all those factors, you have to think that Schuerholz will at least keep his ears open in the next six weeks. What's the harm in listening? If he feels there's a pitcher available that could fit our payroll, then he might just pull the trigger on a deal.

Free agents are possible, although you would think that would only happen if Smoltz has serious problems. There are a few free agents out there that are interesting, so let's name a few.

We've heard rumors before that Leo Mazzone, Atlanta's pitching coach, salivates at the chance to add A.J. Burnett to the rotation. Burnett was 12-12 in 32 starts for the Marlins, and there is no disputing his stuff. He can be lethal, but many wonder why he hasn't dominated. He's got the stuff to do that, but his numbers have been somewhat average. Burnett made $3.65 million in 2005, and with a number of teams, like the Tigers, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Yankees said to be interested, you would think that the bidding war could get out of control.

There are a couple of veteran free agent pitchers from the Washington Nationals that may interest the Braves. Bobby Cox has always been a fan of Esteban Loaiza, who went 12-10 for the Nats last season. Loaiza made $2.9 million in 2005, so he might be available in the $4 million range. And Cox has frequently complimented Tony Armas, who as 7-7 last season. Armas' battle with arm injuries may keep his price down a bit. Both could be decent number three starters.

Jeff Weaver of the Dodgers, Jarrod Washburn of the Angels, and Matt Morris of the Cardinals are three pitchers who will probably be paid more than they are worth. Weaver ($9.25) and Washburn ($6.5 million) are both represented by Scott Boras, so you know he'll want to increase their salaries. Don't expect the Braves to look at these guys.

And while the Braves would love to have Kevin Millwood back, there's no way Scott Boras is going to let the right-hander come home for a fair deal. Since Millwood had a 2.86 ERA for the Indians, Boras is going to want to get his client something in the $10 million dollar range, a $3 million increase from his 2005 salary. The Braves just can't afford that.

The last free agent I'll mention is a wildcard, only because of his injury history. Kevin Brown's big fat contract is finally over. He lives an hour and five minutes from Turner Field, and remember the rumors of him coming to the Braves last winter. You wonder if Brown will want to pitch one more season and do it with his hometown team. If he can prove he's healthy, the Braves might give him a chance with an inexpensive contract. They had some interest in him last season, and they might believe Brown could be effective pitching close to home.

There are a couple of pitchers that might be available on the trade front that might interest the Braves. You have to wonder if the A's will put Barry Zito on the market. The left-hander went 14-13 in 2005 with an ERA of 3.86. He's a year away from free agency, and the A's may want to trade him to avoid losing him for nothing next year. Zito will make $8.5 million in 2006, so the A's would have to take a contract (John Thomson maybe?) back in return. You wonder if the A's would take Thomson, along with a couple of prospects for Tim Hudson‘s former teammate. Or if the Braves re-signed Rafael Furcal, perhaps they would think they should trade Marcus Giles, who interested the A‘s last season, in a deal for Zito.

Having Zito join Hudson and Smoltz in the rotation would give the Braves a pretty dangerous trio, and with the lefty Hampton out for the season, Zito would give the team a dominant southpaw. He would have to be re-signed past 2006, and hopefully being reunited with Hudson would convince him to stay. Again, a contract would have to go back to Oakland, as the Braves could not afford to eat the entire $8.5 million salary. But if the return is between $4-$5 million, the team might be able to afford that gain in payroll, particularly if Furcal leaves via free agency.

The other team the Braves may strike up a conversation with is the Pirates. They have an abundance of pitchers, particularly after Zach Duke and Paul Maholm came up late in the season and impressed. Josh Fogg and Kip Wells are two pitchers that struggled last season, but they have had success in the past. Both pitchers are eligible for arbitration, so the Pirates may want to deal them. But the best option might be 24-year-old left-hander Oliver Perez.

Perez struggled a bit in 2005, going 7-7 with an ERA of 5.85. He had only 97 strikeouts in 103 innings pitched, after striking out 239 batters in 196 innings the season before. Perez is eligible for arbitration as well, and with the Pirates needing a third baseman, a Perez-for-Andy Marte trade might be perfect. The Pirates had some interest in Marte a few years ago when they were shopping Kris Benson to the Braves, and he might be their perfect long-term answer at the hot corner.

Marte is a pretty good bargaining chip. Not many teams can have the best third base prospect in the game and really have no room for him. But since he is blocked by Chipper Jones, Marte is a player the Braves could use in a deal to acquire a top-notch starting pitcher. With the Pirates in need of a young hitter, and having an abundance of pitching, this might be the perfect match.

There are a few more names we'll throw out there as trade possibilities. Colorado right-hander Jason Jennings might be available. He's relatively cheap at $4.4 million in 2006 and $5.5 million in 2007. Jennings might be a solid number three on a good team, and the Rockies are always looking for offense. Red Sox right-hander Bronson Arroyo and Padres' righty Adam Eaton are headed for arbitration, and their teams may prefer to deal them away. The Padres need a catcher, and with Brian McCann ready to take over as Atlanta's starter behind the plate, a deal with Johnny Estrada included for Eaton might be possible.

I really believe John Schuerholz will casually shop around for another starting pitcher. If he can make a good deal for a pitcher who won't break the bank, then he might just pull the trigger, but if he doesn‘t, it‘s not going to be the end of the world. But chances are there will not be a need. Let's hope Smoltz will be ok, and let's hope the organization does have the confidence in Kyle Davies, and Anthony Lerew, and Chuck James. Personally, I wouldn't be worried one bit if we head to spring training with the same group of starters we ended 2005 with. Those kids are going to be good; they've just got to be given their chance.

Tomorrow in part three of our 35-part series we'll talk about whether the Braves should pick up the $4.75 million option on right-hander John Thomson.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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