Though healthy, Hampton may not return

Though healthy, Hampton may not return

ATLANTA -- Because of the years he missed due to injury, it's tough to remember that Chipper Jones and John Smoltz are the only current Braves who have been around for more seasons than Mike Hampton.

Still, when Hampton took the mound for Thursday night's game against the Phillies, there was understandably little talk about the reality that he might have been making his final start at Turner Field.

But the 36-year-old left-hander, who has been with the Braves since the start of the 2003 season, says the thought at least crossed his mind.

"I'm not really an emotional person, but I thought about it," Hampton said. "If I pitch here again, I will be happy. I understand what goes into the business end and everything that the Braves have to do. They have to make decisions. If I fit into their plans, then great."

While the Braves will be in search of two starting pitchers this offseason, it's far too early for them to definitely commit to Hampton. Just two months ago, the baseball world was wondering if he'd pitch again. After making just 12 starts before undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament surgery in 2005, the veteran hurler missed the next two seasons recovering from separate elbow surgeries.

But since returning to the mound on July 26, Hampton has progressively proven that he still has the ability to be both dependable and effective on the mound. He's made 11 consecutive starts without any physical setbacks, and while completing at least six innings in each of his past seven outings, he has posted a 3.72 ERA.

"He should pitch again for somebody next year," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He's only going to get better."

Because of his checkered health history, Hampton understands that teams aren't going to be offering him a multiyear contract. He fully understands that he'll likely have to sign a one-year deal that includes incentives. Of course, given that he's in the final year of an eight-year, $121 million contract, this isn't something that is going to destroy Hampton's financial well-being.

"I'm going to pitch well for somebody next year," Hampton said. "I don't know who. But I've got a lot of years left. I'm healthy and everything feels great. I'm rebounding between starts like I used to."

Currently, Hampton's final regular-season start is scheduled for Tuesday in Philadelphia. But there's a chance the Braves could choose to send him to the mound again on regular rest to start the Sept. 28 season finale in Houston.

This would provide Hampton another opportunity to prove himself. At the same time, it would allow the Braves to shut Jair Jurrjens down after he starts on Monday in Philadelphia. Jurrjens has already thrown nearly 40 more innings than he did during any previous professional season.

"I'm open to anything," Hampton said. "I'll let them decide that. I'm having fun. So if they want me to pitch on the last day, that would be great. It would give me more exposure, more innings and another chance to prove what I can do."

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