by Rob McCarthy
on January 16, 2009 @ 00:00:00
The Boston Red Sox announced the signing of the only pitcher to ever record 200 wins (210) and 150 saves (154) in former Atlanta Braves starting pitcher John Smoltz (shoulder) Tuesday, Jan. 13. It took a one-year, $5.5 million deal, with an added $5 million in possible performance bonuses to pry the 20-year Braves veteran away from the only Major League Baseball home he knew.
Smoltz sports a lifetime 3.26 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP and a .235 opponents' batting average. He also has 15 wins and 194 strikeouts in postseason play, which are big league records.
His historic career took a wrong turn in 2008, when a shoulder injury cut his season short. Already boasting a deep rotation, the Sox took a chance on Smoltz knowing he probably would miss the first few months of the 2009 season.
Smoltz's downward spiral
The injury that sidelined the immortal hurler began to flare up during a 2007 start against the Milwaukee Brewers. He was placed on the disabled list three times since then.
He was finally shut down last season after a blown save in his first game back against the Florida Marlins; he had been sidelined in late April. Smoltz and the Braves' front office believed that the reduced amount of innings in a relief role would help him cope with the pain better - unfortunately, they were wrong.
He finished 2008 at 3-2 with 36 whiffs, eight walks, a 2.57 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP and a .229 opponents' batting average in 28 innings.
Smoltz underwent major surgery to repair the torn labrum in his right shoulder. It was his fifth career surgery on his throwing limb, which has led the 41-year-old right-hander to alter his arm angle multiple times with great success over his career. He may have to do it again.
An ageless arm
Dr. James Andrews performed the procedure on the 1996 National League Cy Young Award winner, and the prognosis is currently optimistic. Recent reports out of Boston state that certain members of the Red Sox brass witnessed the 6-foot-3, 220-pound legend manipulating his killer slider with precision and hitting upwards of 92 miles per hour on the gun during a recent 50-pitch side session.
Going into the 2009 season there is no doubt that Red Sox Nation is buzzing with utter glee. However, there are some soldiers of the Fenway faithful that don't know what to expect out of an ageing veteran that just had surgery on an arm with 20 years of big league wear and tear and four elbow operations.
Back to the start
Smoltz was moved to the bullpen for the 2001 season. After serving as a top closer from 2002 to 2004, Smoltz flipped back into the Braves' rotation in 2005 and continued his stellar performance, winning at least 14 games each year through 2007.
His ERA in the three seasons prior to 2008 was a sparkling 3.22 while he also maintained high-level peripherals, averaging 7.78 strikeouts per nine innings and recording a 3.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In another testament to his ability to adapt, he succeeded while decreasing the use of his fastball over that time.
Either way, Smoltz lands on a pitching staff that is stacked from top to bottom. He will have to break into a rotation with a slew of starters vying for innings. Boston boasts a top three of starting pitchers Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester.
Once he's healthy enough to return, Smoltz will have to break into the No. 4 or No. 5 slot. Most likely he'll see stiff competition from veteran Tim Wakefield, oft-injured former Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Brad Penny and young gun Clay Buchholz.
Penny's health could be a huge indicator of how the rotation will shape out. If Penny rebounds from an injury-plagued 2008, there's a chance Wakefield will be bumped from the rotation, especially if Smoltz comes back firing.
Wakefield gobbles up innings, though, so he could be remain a valuable piece at the back end if the Sox go in that direction. The team doesn't need to rush Buchholz if the aforementioned fray provides exciting - and productive - competition.
Then there remains the possibility that Smoltz will be utilized out of the bullpen, but the recent signing of former Dodgers closer Takashi Saito indicates that the Red Sox will take their time with Smoltz and utilize him in the rotation once the late spring months roll around.
One thing to keep in mind is that Smoltz is a warrior, a fading breed in the world of sports. He has already indicated that he wants to play past 2009, which highlights his healthy competitive nature. Plus, in 20 2/3 innings inside Fenway Park, Smoltz boasts a 2-0 record in five appearances (three starts) with two saves, 23 strikeouts, five walks, a 0.00 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and a .205 opponents' batting average.
Fantasy baseball outlook
Going into your draft, consider Smoltz a flier pick in the late rounds of mixed formats. He will probably be overvalued in most leagues because of his name. Shoulder injuries for a pitcher his age can be problematic, especially when that body part has hurt him for the previous two seasons. Be sure to keep tabs on his remaining rehab leading up to your draft day; if he can return sooner, his draft stock will spike.
He is what he is at this point - when healthy, he can pitch at near-stud levels. Given the fact that he won't start the season on time, you should only snag him if you have the room to stash him on your bench, especially if you loaded up on pitching early.
Taking him as, say, your No. 4 fantasy pitcher in a shallow mixed league isn't a good idea because you'll likely go at least month without his contribution, but his long-term benefits could be immense once the summer months are in full swing.
About Rob McCarthy
Rob has been with KFFL since 2007.
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