Smoltz hopes to remain productive
Former ace unlikely to vest 2009 option with move to bullpen
ATLANTA -- When John Smoltz revealed earlier this week that he planned to return from the disabled list as a reliever, there were obviously some surprised individuals. Lost in the revelation was the fact that he made this decision knowing that it could lead to this being his final season with the Braves.
Smoltz's contract includes a $12 million option for next year that will be vested if he reaches 200 innings this season. Given the current state of his fragile right shoulder, the 40-year-old right-hander knows he likely wouldn't have been able to pitch that many innings even if he had remained in the starter's role.
Additionally, the amount of discomfort Smoltz has battled this year has led him to realize that he might not be able to pitch next year anyway. But for now, he believes he can still contribute if given the chance to pitch one inning at a time as a reliever.
"I'm not fighting it," Smoltz said. "I've got every reason, contractually, to think [differently]. If I pitch 200 more innings, I have another year. That's not going to happen. There isn't any magic that's going to make that happen."
Obviously there's always a chance that Smoltz could find health in the relief role and choose to return to the Braves next season, but with his 41st birthday approaching in two weeks, he knows that he's nearing the end of a 20-season Major League career that so far has been played solely in Atlanta.
"I'm completely at peace with where I'm at," Smoltz said. "If tomorrow, a fortune-teller told me I wasn't going to pitch again, I'd be fine with it. If they told me I was going to pitch another few years, that would be great."
While retirement could clearly be an option at the end of this season, Smoltz is currently only worried about finding a way to make an impact this season. This is what led him to decide it would be best for him to return to the relief role that he handled from 2001-04, after coming back from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.
"With every bit of the information that we have, this seems to be the best avenue," said Smoltz, who notched a franchise-record 154 saves while serving as the Braves' closer.
While he allowed just two runs in the 23 innings he compiled over his first four starts this season, Smoltz was battling discomfort in his shoulder region. He was able to make the necessary adjustments until Sunday, when he allowed the Mets four earned runs in just four innings.
Two days later, noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews diagnosed Smoltz with a severely inflamed biceps tendon and inflamed rotator cuff.
Now, Smoltz will likely wait at least another week, and possibly longer, before even attempting to pick up a baseball. Once the inflammation in his shoulder has subsided, he'll begin a short Minor League rehab assignment and then return to an unspecified role in the bullpen.
Over the past couple of days, Smoltz hasn't used the word "closer" when describing what he plans to do. Before moving into the closer's role in 2001, he spent a few weeks as a middle reliever. Based on how he feels and the state of the Braves' bullpen at that time, he may do the same this year.
"Based on what I can do and what I have done in the past, this is the best-case scenario for us," Smoltz said.
While Smoltz was serving as the closer, he always longed to return to a starting role. Now, with the realization that his body may never again allow him to be a reliable top-flight starter again, he wants to remain a valuable contributor, and is hopeful that he'll be able to fill this role out of the bullpen.
"It might not work, but I'm fired up about the challenge," Smoltz said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.