Around the Horn: Starting rotation

Smoltz, Hudson form backbone of strong staff

The following is the first in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Starting rotation.

ATLANTA -- As the Braves entered the 2005 season, there was a thought their starting rotation might be just as strong as it was during the late 1990s, when Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine were all in their prime.

It was a lofty hope that various significant injuries prevented from being proven.

Now, as the Braves prepare for the 2006 season, they do so knowing they will be without Mike Hampton. But with Smoltz and Tim Hudson leading the way, Atlanta has every reason to confidently believe it'll continue its tradition of having one of the game's best rotations.

"We feel really good about all the veterans we have coming back, and the young guys that were impressive last year," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "We've got about six, seven potential starters right now. We'll let that be fought out in the spring."

Hampton, who had Tommy John surgery in September, will be missed. But the Braves are hoping that John Thomson's return to health and Horacio Ramirez's return to form will allow them to get through this season without their valuable veteran southpaw.

While Smoltz and Hudson know they'll once again be serving as co-aces, the final three spots in the rotation will be determined during Spring Training. Thomson and Ramirez are expected to get two of the other rotation spots. But Jorge Sosa may once again have to prove he can work the magic that made him the surprise of last year's rotation.

If the Braves don't have confidence Sosa will be as effective in the rotation as he was while going 10-3 as a starter last year, they may move him to a bullpen that doesn't possess the depth of the starting rotation.

Assuming Smoltz, Hudson, Thomson and Ramirez are in, the fifth member of the rotation will be Sosa, Kyle Davies or maybe even Chuck James or Anthony Lerew, two young hurlers who made impressions as September additions this past season.

James, a 24-year-old southpaw, posted a 2.16 ERA while rising through three Minor League levels in 2005. Lerew is a powerful right-hander who competed in the 2005 Futures Game and was impressive at both Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Richmond last year.

Atlanta Braves
Starters: Starters look solid for '06
Bullpen: Who will be the closer?
Catchers: McCann's the man
Corner IF: Something to prove
Middle IF: Renteria steps in at SS
Outfielders: For the defense
Bench: Counting on youth

"I love James and I love Lerew," Cox said. "James is a left-hander that doesn't give you the appearance that he's a baseball player, if you just look at him. The fact is, he can pitch. He's really sneaky."

If nothing else, James and Lerew give the Braves the depth they need if their rotation is ravaged by injuries for a second straight season. Hampton was essentially lost for the season after feeling stiffness in his arm on May 14, just two days before Thomson suffered a finger injury that cost him three months.

One month later, the two were joined on the disabled list by Hudson, who missed a month while letting an oblique injury heal.

Going against the odds, Smoltz was the only member of last year's rotation who avoided injury for most of the season. It wasn't until September that he began feeling fatigue in a shoulder that was used to complete an impressive 229 2/3 innings. Going into the season, there was doubt whether his oft-injured arm would be able to handle the rigors of being a starting pitcher again.

Having successfully made the transition from closer to starter, Smoltz is looking forward to proving that he's fully recovered from the late-season shoulder problems that hindered him. In addition, he's hoping to get more help from a bullpen that relinquished save opportunities in six of his starts and prevented him from tallying more than 14 wins.

"I don't even know how to describe what that was at the end of last year," Smoltz said. "But I'm feeling good right now."

Hudson will be looking to gain the consistency that eluded him most of last season, during which he went 14-9 with a 3.52 ERA. He showed some signs of gaining it, winning each of his final four starts in August and seven of his final nine decisions.

It wasn't until the end of the 2005 season that Thomson built the confidence that he could throw without fear of reinjuring his finger. His four wins during the injury-plagued campaign came just one year after he had posted a career-high 14 wins for the Braves. From the 2004 All-Star break until the time he was injured, he went 11-3 with a 2.80 ERA in 24 starts.

Ramirez is also looking to rebound from a disappointing 2005 season in which he went 11-9 with a 4.63 ERA. The 26-year-old southpaw lacked the aggressiveness that he possessed as a rookie in 2003, when he burst on the scene with a 12-win season. He was on his way to a second straight strong season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in late May 2004.

The most likely candidate to fill out the rotation is Davies, who is coming off a seven-win rookie season. The 22-year-old right-hander has superb mental makeup and physical skills that give him the potential of being a special pitcher at the big-league level.

"He's a polished kid," Cox said. "He's a smart kid. He's way ahead of the game."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.