-- Dilip K., Brownsville, Texas
Even if the Braves finish the season with the National League's best ERA and have a starting rotation that includes three 15-game winners, I'm apt to believe that McDowell won't have proved as much in 2007 as he did in his inaugural season in 2006.
With his introduction into the Major League Baseball coaching fraternity last year, McDowell successfully completed a hazing process that was cruel and at times seemingly unfair. Injuries and questionable roster construction left him with a rotation that had just two pitchers who made at least 20 starts and a bullpen less experienced than some that existed in the International League.
Still, while battling the storm, McDowell showed the patience and intellect necessary to make progress. The evolution of Macay McBride and Tyler Yates were a result of McDowell's dedication and patience -- two necessary qualities his predecessor didn't always show.
Had Leo Mazzone been handed this pitching staff and faced the same obstacles, I'm apt to believe last year might have been a disaster on the pitching front in Atlanta. Young pitchers like McBride and Yates need somebody to provide both direction and confidence. With McDowell, they had somebody capable of providing both.
The acquisitions of Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano have greatly enhanced this year's pitching staff. The belief that it might be the NL's best is a result of its depth. And without the progress youngsters like McBride, Yates and Chuck James displayed last year, there wouldn't be as much reason to believe that this is indeed a deep and talented staff.
McDowell's biggest task this year isn't getting Tim Hudson back to his successful form. Veteran pitchers take care of themselves, so that responsibility will be left solely to Hudson. Instead, the second-year pitching coach's main job this year will be to continue to foster the development of his younger pitchers like Kyle Davies, who certainly could use regular confidence boosts.
Baseball is much different than football or basketball. There's no need for players to adapt to a West Coast or Triangle offense. Instead, the most successful coaches in baseball are the ones who conform to the individual needs of each of their pitchers.
McDowell proved quite capable of doing so last year. If he does so again this year, he won't have proven himself. He'll simply prove that many are correct in their belief that he is quite capable of having a long and prosperous career that could one day land him a managerial gig.
What is the status on Mike Hampton's recovery and can we expect to see him in Spring Training?
-- Duke W., Newburgh, Ind.
When pitchers and catchers report to camp on Feb. 15, all indications are that Hampton will be at full health and won't have any restrictions. But because he missed all of last year and most of the 2005 season, it's safe to say the Braves look at him with guarded optimism.
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Last week, Hampton called manager Bobby Cox to tell him all had gone well with a recent throwing session. This was certainly good news to the longtime skipper, who knows the veteran left-hander is a major key to the team's success in 2007.
Because he has the support of the deep bullpen, Hampton won't have to push himself in the early portion of the season. It may take him a while to reacquaint himself with the speed of the game. But I would expect that transition would only take two or three starts.
Of course, before he can even enter that phase, Hampton must first gain the confidence that his elbow has indeed fully healed from the Tommy John ligament replacement procedure that was done in September 2005. That confidence will build during his Spring Training starts, which will also allow him to get reacquainted with the game's speed.
As long as Hampton makes at least 30 starts, and I truly believe he will, he's got a good chance to win at least 15 games. During the 22-start stretch that preceded his elbow problems, he was 15-2 with a 2.61 ERA.
The only person expecting immediate resumption of such dominance is Hampton, whose competitive fires prevent him from being somebody who just shows up to collect a paycheck.
I've heard that Brent Lillibridge would've ranked in the top five prospects in the Pirates organization. Where does he rank in the Braves' farm system and how does he compare to other Braves shortstop prospects such as Yunel Escobar, Elvis Andrus, Tony Pena Jr. and Luis Hernandez?
-- Greg O., Oxford, Conn.
As impressive as Lillibridge's offensive statistics were in 2006, many will tell you that he's an even better fielder. With most guys in his situation, it would be easy to say, "let's wait to see what he does above the Class A level." But with Lillibridge, who was acquired in the Adam LaRoche trade in January, the jump to the next level may not have much of an effect on his statistics. Power and batting averages often drop when players go to the next level.
Speed, plate discipline and defensive skills aren't as apt to be affected, and Lillibridge has shown that he possesses each of these three assets. His only full professional season came last season, when he played for low Class A Hickory and high Class A Lynchburg.
During those two stops, the 23-year-old shortstop combined to hit .305 with 13 homers and 53 stolen bases (66 attempts). He was the only player in all of the Minors to hit at least .300 with 10 home runs, 50 RBIs, 50 stolen bases and a .400 on-base percentage.
So, obviously, Lillibridge is a special talent. And so, too, is Escobar, who one American League general manager has described as "the closest thing to Miguel Tejada at the Minor League level."
This will be an important Spring Training for both of these young shortstops. Lillibridge will be looking to prove himself in a new environment. Escobar will need to show Cox that he is capable of showing a sense of maturity and respect, two traits that were often absent when he played at Double-A Mississippi in 2006.
Pena may prove to be a serviceable utility player at the Major League level and Hernandez's lack of offensive skill will continue to hinder his advancement. But for now, it appears the Braves have three legitimate shortstop prospects in Escobar, Lillibridge and Elvis Andrus, who will be just 18 years old when he begins his third Minor League season this year.
The Braves have said that Craig Wilson will platoon with Ryan Langerhans in left field. I'm assuming that means Wilson will play against left-handed pitchers. Does this mean that Scott Thorman will hit against lefties? Or will the rumors of Chipper Jones moving to first come true?
-- Aaron V., Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The Braves haven't said that Wilson will platoon with Langerhans. I have projected that this is what will happen. My reason for doing so is the belief that you wouldn't build your roster around a strong pitching staff without having the mind-set that you're also going to also field the best defensive team.
Thus, because Langerhans is the superior defensive player, I believe he'll end up seeing more time in left field than Matt Diaz, who now appears to be the more significant offensive threat.
As for Jones making a move to first base, those rumors are completely unfounded. My guess is that Wilson will play left field in games that opponents go with a left-handed starter and potentially see some time at first base.
But all indications are that Thorman will be at first base a majority of the time. Last year at Triple-A Richmond, he provided a belief that he can be equally successful against both left-handed and right-handed pitchers.
I disagree with you that Dale Murphy is not a Hall of Famer. I have just completed a lengthy piece on that subject for the revived Legends Sports Memorabilia. I'll be sure to get you a copy when it comes out.
-- Dan S., Fair Lawn, N.J.
Well, Dan, I know you're not alone and I look forward to looking at your research. During Saturday night's Braves 400 Club event, Phil Niekro, Gene Garber, Paul Runge and Pete Van Wieren all pointed out that Murphy deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
These are guys who were around Murphy on a daily basis when he was evolving into one of the game's finest players. While their belief may contain some personal bias that stems from the fact that Murphy is such a great person, they left me wanting to believe that he does indeed belong in Cooperstown.
As I said in last week's mailbag, Murphy's efforts on the field included just six great seasons, two in which he earned National League MVP awards. But I'm not sure if looking at the statistics he compiled from 1982-87 tells the whole story.
Murphy is painted in an even greater light when those who played with and against him are approached. Here are some quotes that Murphy supporter Mike Ridgill sent me a while back:
"You can put him in a class with a [Willie] Mays and a [Hank] Aaron, because he can beat you with his glove, and he can beat you with a home run." -- Joe Torre, who was Murphy's manager in Atlanta from 1982-84
"I can't imagine Joe DiMaggio was a better all-around player than Dale Murphy." -- Nolan Ryan
"These days, any time one of my pitchers keeps Murphy in the ballpark, I pat 'em on the fanny." -- Pete Rose, while serving as the Reds manager
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less