At the present, Braves' pitching falls short

Here's what the Atlanta Braves' pitching rotation looked like at the conclusion of the 2002 regular season (including statistics from starts only):

Maddux 16- 6 2.62 199.1 118 45
Glavine 18-11 2.96 224.2 127 78
Millwood 17- 8 3.25 213 176 63
D. Moss 12- 6 3.50 175 107 89
Marquis 8- 9 5.04 114.1 84 49
Totals 71-40 3.31 926.1 612 324

Pretty good, huh? Even when you throw in the disaster known as Albie Lopez ($4 million, 7.11 ERA in four starts), Atlanta's starters posted a 3.42 ERA, the best in the major leagues. As you've probably heard, though, the Braves' rotation looks quite a bit different today...

Millwood 17- 8 3.25 213 176 63
R. Ortiz 14-10 3.61 214.1 137 94
P. Byrd 17-11 3.90 228.1 129 38
Hampton 7-15 6.15 178.2 74 91
Marquis 8- 9 5.04 114.1 84 49
Totals 63-53 4.25 948.2 600 335

Kevin Millwood might become a real ace in 2003, but it's pretty hard to get excited about those other fellows.

When Braves GM John Schuerholz looks at Russ Ortiz, he sees a pitcher with the "ability to be a top-of-the-rotation starter," but what I see is a guy with a so-so strikeout rate and a 4.48 ERA over the last three seasons when not pitching in the friendly expanses of Pacific Bell Park.

When Schuerholz looks at Paul Byrd, he sees a pitcher who won 17 games for a pretty awful team last season. But what I see is an aging pitcher with a lousy strikeout rate and a scary injury history.

When Schuerholz looks at Mike Hampton ... well, I don't know what he sees. I guess I should ask, but his answers to similar questions haven't been particularly enlightening. I guess he sees a pitcher who was good once, and might be again after being liberated from Coors Field. But what I see is a guy who, if he turns things around, should put pitching coach Leo Mazzone in the Hall of Fame.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of the Braves, "They had a good run. But unless John Schuerholz does a lot of good work between now and Opening Day, the run is done."

Well, to this point he's done some good work, but not a lot. At this moment, the Braves still have big holes at first base, second base, third base, and behind the plate. And their shortstop ain't exactly lighting up the scoreboard, either.

It's simple. The Braves need Greg Maddux or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Because with the lineup they've got right now, one great starter (Millwood) and three or four decent ones just isn't going to be enough. So if Maddux doesn't come back, John Smoltz has to dust off his first-inning cleats and get ready to pitch 200 innings.

Of course, sending Smoltz back to the rotation carries some risks. For one thing, it would weaken an already-weakened Braves bullpen. And for another, there's no way to know if Smoltz's body can withstand a starter's workload, considering he hasn't pitched 200 innings in a season since 1997.

But without Maddux, the Braves need Millwood to take over for Maddux, Smoltz to take over for Glavine, Ortiz to take over for Millwood ... which is where this breaks down, because Millwood was the best No. 3 starter in the majors last year, and Russ Ortiz simply doesn't have that kind of stuff. But Ortiz-Byrd-Hampton in 2003 could be as good as Millwood-Moss-Marquis in 2002. It's not likely, because Hampton's a huge question mark and Ortiz really isn't any better than Moss. But it's possible.

On the other hand, if Maddux accepts the Braves' offer of arbitration and returns, the rotation looks great and Schuerholz has six starters (not including Smoltz), one of whom he could presumably convert into the first or second baseman they so desperately need.

But as things stand today, there's still work to be done. And so I'm still picking the field against the Braves in the National League East.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.