Atlanta's depth is being tested

John Smoltz

Here we go again. More questions and worry for the pitching staff.

It all started in spring training.

First it was John Smoltz's shoulder. A few days later Rafael Soriano's elbow flared up. Then it was Mike Hampton's groin. Chuck James's shoulder had already slowed down his schedule. The month of March made you wonder if the Braves' newfound depth would soon be tested.

Three days after the season started Hampton did something with his pectoral muscle. Then it was Glavine's hamstring. Soriano's elbow became too painful to go on. And then Soriano's successor, Peter Moylan, didn't last a week before his elbow practically blew up.

It has pretty much been one thing after another with the Braves pitching staff.

This ‘situation' is now getting a little serious. It all pretty much came to a head Sunday when Smoltz admitted his shoulder really had become a problem. It's not that it was a surprise. We've all seen him struggled each time out to get through a game, regardless of how well he pitched.

But Sunday was different. Sunday you could actually hear the concern in Smoltz's own voice, even through the written word. Now, we're not the only ones who are worried. He's worried too.

Okay, so Glavine will be back Tuesday in Washington, and Hampton's first rehab start didn't result in the Greater Richmond Ambulance Service being called upon. But we're expecting the news on Moylan to be bad, and there's no doubt that the timetable on Soriano is on hold.

The Smoltz injury, however, could be the biggest blow of all. That's enough to really start to worry about this Braves team.

You can't say General Manager Frank Wren envisioned this, but he built this team to try to withstand such a blow. They might be able to manage, but it's going to be tough.

Smoltz will find out this week, or at least try to find out, what is exactly up with his shoulder. But if you've watched any of his five starts you know how hard it's been for him to make it through these games. Something is not right with that shoulder, and Smoltz needs to find out sooner rather than later.

Let's hope Smoltz meets with the entire Braves' medical staff, and then goes to see Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham. Let's hope there's a clear-cut answer, one way or the other.

Obviously, there's a chance some time off will help whatever is wrong with Smoltz's shoulder. But what if it's more than that? What if Smoltz actually has to miss significant time?

The Braves need to find out so they can plan accordingly. If Smoltz is out for a while, the Braves will have to decide if James comes back up from Richmond or if Jeff Bennett settles in as a starter. Of course, with Glavine coming back soon and the never-ending hope for Hampton, there's a chance any potential loss of Smoltz could be counter-balanced.

But come on, we know better. Smoltz is the heart and soul of this team. His teammates marvel at how he has gone out there time and again in pain. Any significant time missed will be hard to replace.

Atlanta could give James another chance, which would be good for him since he's this year's Joey Devine (back and forth to Richmond). Or they could turn to Jo Jo Reyes, who has given up one run in his first four Triple-A starts. Or they could turn to Charlie Morton, who has given up six earned runs in his first four games.

Jair Jurrjens has been outstanding, and he must be thought of as a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate. And Tim Hudson is trying to convince us that he's okay, despite two pretty shaky outings in the last few weeks. But we found out last season no team can have only two dependable starters.

There's no doubt that Frank Wren is looking around. That, by the way, is his job and he's doing that. It's early though, so the market is not easy to gauge just yet. But if this continues he's going to have to see when Houston might want to part with Roy Oswalt or when other teams are ready to throw in the towel and start making some trades.

That usually happens after Memorial Day, though. The Braves may be able to make it until then. It might be tough to watch at times, but they may be able to make it.

Glavine can, in effect, replace Smoltz as the heart of the rotation. Before his hamstring flared up, Glavine was pretty impressive in his first few starts. But there is no doubt the return of Hampton could make the biggest difference.

We've all made fun of Hampton, and laughed at his continual bouts of J.D. Drew Disease. But let's be honest: if Hampton can simply get on that mound, he'll probably be okay. He showed in spring training that as long as he is pitching, he's still pretty good. And regardless of Smoltz's prognosis, Hampton's return could make a serious impact.

The Braves are due a little luck here. Maybe the successful returns of Glavine and prayerfully Hampton would do the trick. And there is no doubt the return of Mike Gonzalez next month would be a huge shot in the arm.

But if Smoltz is not out there on that mound, that in itself is cause enough for concern, regardless of how much good luck may be on the horizon.



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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