Hampton strains hamstring in Mexico

Hampton strains hamstring in Mexico

ATLANTA -- Mike Hampton's critics and doubters have reason to get a little louder. What Hampton and the Braves had hoped would be a successful stint in the Mexican Winter League instead became a very brief one interrupted by yet another injury.

Fortunately, this latest injury has nothing to do with the left elbow that has sidelined him for each of the past two seasons. Unfortunately, it's one that further dampens his spirit and gives further reason why the Braves have never allowed themselves to become fully confident that he'll be healthy throughout the 2008 season.

Hampton went to Mexico with the hope of making seven pain-free starts that would erase the rust that has formed during the past two years. But in the first inning of his debut for Navojoa on Thursday, the 35-year-old southpaw strained his right hamstring and was forced to leave what was scheduled to be at least a two-inning stint.

While Hampton's stint in the Mexican League is likely over, the Braves still are cautiously optimistic that he'll at least provide some dividends in their rotation next season. There is a good chance the hamstring will be healthy in about a month, providing reason to believe he'll be ready to pitch when Spring Training begins.

"Now we just have less of an indication of where Mike is in his comeback," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "The good news is that he was ecstatic about how his arm felt and how he commanded his pitches."

Hampton suffered the injury after coming off the mound to make a play. He exited after feeling discomfort while warming up for the second inning.

When Hampton returned to his Phoenix-area home this weekend for scheduled rehab, he and doctors saw that there was bleeding outside the muscle. This provided indication that he suffered more than just a mild strain.

Hampton would like to pitch again before Spring Training begins. But with just four months left in the Mexican League, there's a good chance the next time he faces live hitters will be in a Grapefruit League game.

"He would love to pitch again [in the Mexican League]," Wren said. "It's just a matter of if he has enough time to come back." Hampton is entering the final year of the mega, eight-year, $121 million deal that he signed with the Rockies before the 2001 season. His first two years with Colorado created a belief that it was a ridiculous contract, and the past three seasons have certainly enhanced the possibility that it will be regarded as one of the worst contracts in professional sports history.

The former All-Star hurler made just 12 starts in 2005 before undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in September of that year. He missed all of 2006 while rehabbing from that surgery and then missed all of 2007 because a tendon in his elbow didn't recover normally from the surgical procedure performed nearly 18 months earlier.

Hampton is owed $15 million this season. When the Braves acquired him before the 2003 season, they became responsible to pay him $48.5 million over the following six seasons. They have pro-rated his salary on an annual basis, and during the past two seasons, insurance has covered nearly half of his salary.

With the hope that Hampton will emerge from Spring Training healthy, the Braves aren't going to try to sign an additional starter. They feel confident with their current group.

John Smoltz, Tim Hudson and Tom Glavine will fill the first three spots in the starting rotation. If Hampton's injury woes continue, Jair Jurrjens, Jeff Bennett, Jo-Jo Reyes and Chuck James will be the top candidates to battle for the final two spots.

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