Braves still well-armed, but grip weaker minus Smoltz

On Baseball

March 12, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Atlanta Braves have owned the National League East since joining the division in 1994, but the loss of cornerstone starter John Smoltz to a season-ending elbow injury has put their divisional dynasty at serious risk.

The Braves were able to weather the loss of Andres Galarraga and Javy Lopez last year because of the depth of the starting rotation, but the loss of a front-line starter so early in the season puts them one more pitching injury away from having a run-of-the-mill rotation for the first time in a long, long time.

The core of the rotation -- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood -- still is as good as any team in the league, but it is the breadth of the Braves' rotation that has long separated them from the rest of the NL East.

Millwood has moved up to the No. 3 spot (though he arguably was the No. 3 starter already) and the club has been forced to pull veteran left-hander Terry Mulholland out of the bullpen to fill the fourth slot.

The competition for the fifth-starter role has not been affected by the loss of Smoltz, but the outcome becomes far more significant in his absence.

Top pitching prospect Bruce Chen, former top pitching prospect Steve Avery and young Darrin Ebert are competing for the role, though there remains the possibility that general manager John Schuerholz will go outside the organization for help.

"You don't replace somebody of John's caliber," Schuerholz told reporters. "I told Tommy [Glavine] and Greg [Maddux] that we're going to have to circle the wagons real tight. We'll talk about how we'll try internally to deal with John's loss, examine what we have here, see how things work in John's absence and decide whether or not to look outside the organization."

Mulholland is a veteran pitcher with a ton of experience, but he has not put up great numbers as a starter the past couple of years. He was 10-8 with a 4.39 ERA for the Cubs and Braves last year and was 6-13 in his last season (1997) as a full-time starter. He is better suited to long relief at this point in his career, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Chen probably will open the season as the fifth starter, though Avery could get a look later in April if he continues to rebound from August shoulder surgery. The Braves have one other alternative -- solid middle reliever Kevin McGlinchy, who was a starter in the minor leagues -- but manager Bobby Cox would rather not create a problem in the bullpen to solve one in the rotation.

Red Sox wild card

The ace of the Boston Red Sox pitching staff is -- unquestionably -- Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, but the key to the club's chances of unseating the New York Yankees or winning another wild-card playoff berth may be his brother.

Ramon Martinez looked very good in his first exhibition start on Tuesday, striking out three in two innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates and showing improved velocity over last season.

What caught everyone's attention was the way he blew two fastballs by Wil Cordero after falling behind 3-1 on the count.

"To throw a fastball by Cordero, who is a dead fastball hitter, he's got to have something on it," said first baseman Mike Stanley. "Wil is as good a fastball hitter as there is in the game. I think the count was 3-1, which means everybody knew a fastball was coming, and he put it so far on the black that [Cordero] couldn't do anything with it, so he had to let it go by. Then the count is 3-2 and it's no secret that another fastball is coming, and [Cordero] still couldn't hit it."

That was something that Martinez couldn't have done last year, but now is much further along in his recovery from a serious 1998 arm injury.

"Last year, I didn't have it," Martinez said. "The average on my fastball was kind of low, but I wasn't trying to throw hard. I was just trying to get comfortable throwing. Now I know for sure that I can reach back."

Japan not in Cards

The St. Louis Cardinals were offered the opportunity to be part of the historic opening regular-season series in Japan this year, but the team voted not to participate for several reasons.

First and foremost, the club wanted to do nothing that might impact its ability to compete in the tougher National League Central this year.

"Everything you do in spring training is geared toward getting ready for the season," said manager Tony La Russa. "We talked about it with the players and felt that there were more minuses than pluses."

The Cardinals also felt that the invitation wasn't really directed at the whole team.

"We thought that the only reason we were invited was because Mark McGwire is on our team," La Russa said. "If we had been ordered to go, we would have gone and made the most of it. Since we had a choice, we chose not to."

Instead, the Chicago Cubs will meet the New York Mets in the first regular-season opener played outside of North America.

Waiting for Wood

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