Well, now we've gotten through the offense on our Braves All-Decade Second Team. There were some tough choices for offensive players, but more often than not that had to do with choosing the best from a group of subpar players. The pitching is different: same tough choices, but this time it's because there are many deserving players who pitched well for the Braves during the 2000s. Even this second team rotation is stocked with very good pitchers, unlike the offense (which features some decidedly unimpressive names).
#1: Mike Hampton (2003-05, 2008), 35-24 with a 4.10 ERA and 262 K's in 509 2/3 innings (4.6 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9).
This could be a controversial selection, but I'm looking here at what Hampton did, not at what he didn't do. I don't fault him for his injury issues: I'd rather have him on the DL when hurt than trying to get by pitching less than 100%. I also don't fault him for the salaries that he was paid, since after all the Braves agreed in advance to pay that money. The money that I refer to is the eight-year, $121 million contract that he signed with Colorado in December 2000. The Braves pursued him as a free agent that winter, but couldn't match Colorado's offer as Hampton signed the richest contract ever for a pitcher. Two years into the deal, with Hampton floundering in Coors Field, the Rockies dealt him to Florida in a six-player deal in November '02. Florida, however, still stood well above its payroll limit after the deal, and dealt the 30-year-old Hampton to the Braves two days later for reliever Tim Spooneybarger and minor-leaguer Ryan Baker. The Fish agreed to eat $38 million of the remaining money owed to Hampton, and with a $20 million contribution from Colorado, the Braves were left with Hampton for six years and $48.5 million total.*
*Taken verbatim from Cot's Baseball Contracts, the final word on contract numbers: "Colorado to pay $49M... Florida to pay $23.5M... Atlanta to pay $48.5M ($2M of 2003 salary, $2M in 2004, $1.5M in 2005, $13.5M in 2006, $14.5M in 2007, $15M in 2008)." Hampton, of course, never played in Florida.
He rebounded under Leo Mazzone in 2003 and 2004, posting an ERAs of 3.84 and then 4.28, though minor hurts kept him from reaching the 200-inning plateau in either season. Then, twelve starts and a 3.50 ERA into the 2005 campaign, all hell broke loose. Hampton struggled with elbow pain beginning in June and was eventually shut down for good in mid-August. He went under the knife for Tommy John surgery in September and missed the 2006 season rehabbing. On track to rejoin the rotation for 2007, Hampton then tore his oblique muscle swinging a bat in spring training. He returned to the mound in April, but his elbow pain recurred, and doctors discovered a torn flexor tendon which required surgery and cost Hampton the 2007 season. Set once again to return for 2008, he strained his left pectoral muscle warming up for his first start, and was sidelined until July, when he finally pitched in a major-league game again. He'd make 13 starts the rest of the way; after two bad starts, he posted a 4.17 ERA in his last eleven.
Still, that line at the top is what gets him here. He employed his groundballing tendencies to win 35 games with a solid ERA. He gets excellent marks for being a good athlete and a great fielder, taking home a Gold Glove in 2003. He also handled the bat about as well as any pitcher in baseball: he's won five Silver Slugger Awards, including one with the Braves in 2003.
The rest of the rotation is below the jump...
#2: Javier Vazquez (2009), 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA and 238 K's in 219 1/3 innings (9.8 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9).
It really speaks to the kind of season Vazquez had last year that he makes this list at #2 in spite of pitching just one season in Atlanta. On pure stuff, he could have been the Second Team's ace. This isn't meant to be a sabermetric analysis, but those component rates show just how dominant Vazquez was in '09, blowing away more than a batter per inning while being stingy with bases on balls. He finished fourth in the Cy Young race thanks to a second-place vote by our friend Keith Law. Acquired from the White Sox last winter for a four-prospect package headlined by catcher Tyler Flowers, he had the best year of his career.
He'd always had a reputation as an underachiever with great stuff that rarely matched his performance, but it's more than safe to say that he lived up to his potential in Atlanta. However, his erratic performance came despite his being one of the great strikeout/control pitchers in the big leagues. Though he's only 33, Vazquez is actually sixth in strikeouts among all active starting pitchers, and fifth in K/BB, just behind Roy Oswalt but ahead of Roy Halladay and Randy Johnson. Despite that, his career ERA+ is just 107 -- tied for 45th among active pitchers who have made at least 100 starts, along with Mike Hampton, Ted Lilly, Chien-Ming Wang, Chris Young, and Matt Morris. Not an elite crowd.
But 2009 was a charmed season. He was comfortable in the Braves' clubhouse and provided quality leadership as well. He had one year left on a three-year, $34.5 million extension he signed with the White Sox in March 2007, and -- as with the pitcher below -- the Braves felt forced to trade him to save money, in one of Frank Wren's most controversial moves as GM, acquiring utility outfielder Melky Cabrera, LHP Mike Dunn, and fireballing low-minors RHP Arodys Vizcaino from the Yankees.
#3: Kevin Millwood (2000-02), 35-28 with a 4.02 ERA and 430 K's in 550 2/3 innings (7.0 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9).
The Braves of the Bobby Cox era are famous for their great pitching and their excellent player development. I find it strange then that of the ten starting pitchers between this group and the first team rotation, just two were actually drafted by the Braves. Millwood was the Braves' 11th-round selection in 1993, and reached the bigs in 1997. He placed third in Cy Young voting in 1999 behind a 2.68 ERA and a league-leading 6.6 hits per nine, but regressed significantly after the decade turned.
He was durable in 2000, starting 35 games, but his 4.66 ERA was a significant disappointment. An inflamed right labrum began bothering Millwood in May 2001, limiting him to just 21 starts in '01. He posted a 4.03 ERA after getting back on the field in late July, and kept getting better in 2002. He effectively replaced then-closer John Smoltz's production and teamed with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine to form a new Big Three, as he tossed 217 innings in '02 with a 3.24 ERA while winning 18 games. Still just heading into his age-28 season, Millwood's future in Atlanta looked bright. Then Greg Maddux unexpectedly accepted arbitration following the 2002 season, figured to make a one-year bounty of $15 million, and the Braves' salary expectations changed overnight.
Faced with dishing out an eight-figure salary to the Mad Dog, and having already acquired Mike Hampton, Paul Byrd, and Russ Ortiz earlier in the month, the Braves couldn't afford to test the arbitration process with Millwood in his final year before free agency. Three days after trading for Ortiz, John Schuerholz flipped Millwood (and his near-$10 million arbitration award) to their division rivals in Philadelphia for longtime backup catcher Johnny Estrada in a deal that incited much outrage among Braves fans. Millwood's put together a long, successful career even if he's never achieved stardom, but his best years were in Atlanta.
#4: Russ Ortiz (2003-04), 36-16 with a 3.97 ERA and 292 K's in 417 innings (6.3 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9).
In a rotation reconstruction similar to the one last winter, John Schuerholz spent the winter after the 2002 season rebuilding his starting pitching. Without knowing if Greg Maddux would accept arbitration, he traded for Mike Hampton (see above), and, in one day, signed Paul Byrd to a two-year deal and traded promising young lefty Damian Moss and then-minor-leaguer Merkin Valdez to the Giants for the 29-year-old Ortiz. (Since leaving the Braves, Valdez and Moss have combined for a 5.57 ERA in 240 total major league innings. Moss is now out of baseball.)
Ortiz was coming off back-to-back 200-inning, sub-four ERA campaigns, and he kept up the good work in Atlanta, tossing well over 400 innings in his last two arbitration years, with ERAs of 3.84 in 2003 and 4.13 in 2004. He was an All-Star in '03, and with 21 wins, he finished fourth in Cy Young voting while even winning MVP votes. Oddly enough, he accomplished all that while leading the NL in walks, issuing an astouding 102 free passes in 212 1/3 innings. After Greg Maddux left, he was the ace of the staff in 2004. He responded by walking 112 men in 204 2/3 innings, though he somehow managed to maintain an ERA slightly better than league average. (Fun fact: Ortiz failed to repeat as the league leader in walks in '04 thanks to the efforts of Brandon Webb. The 25-year old issued 119 walks and uncorked 17 wild pitches--both major-league-leading totals--en route to a 3.59 ERA. Go figure.)
His arbitration eligibility expired after 2004, and the Braves decided not to invest their life savings on a guy who'd walked 214 men the previous two years. The Diamondbacks had no such scruples, however, and so Ortiz followed the money to Arizona, who offered him a four-year, $33 million contract. He posted a 6.94 ERA with three different teams over the ensuing three seasons.
#5: John Burkett (2000-01), 22-18 with a 3.74 ERA and 297 K's in 353 2/3 innings (7.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9).
Burkett might be the biggest free-talent pickup for the Braves in the 2000s; he signed with the Braves just days before Opening Day 2000 after failing to make the Devil Rays roster in spring training. (Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about Julio Franco.) Burkett struggled with shoulder bursitis in 1999 en route to an ERA in the mid-fives, and the Rangers declined their $4.2 million option for 2000. Burkett signed with the Devil Rays in January, but was cut on March 29 at the end of camp. Just hours later, the Braves signed the 35-year-old to a one-year pact worth $750,000 (plus $750K in incentives) to battle Bruce Chen and Luis Rivera for the fifth starter's job.
Burkett appeared in four games out of the bullpen to start the year, coughing up runs in each appearance (7 ER in 5 1/3 IP), but nonetheless got the nod the first time the fifth starter's slot came around. He was serviceable--but no better--with a 4.60 ERA the rest of the way, to finish at 4.89 for the year, very decent for a fifth starter making less than a million. Still, with Terry Mulholland departing, the Braves re-upped Burkett for 2001 with another one-year deal, this time worth $1.75 million. He then proceeded to take the National League by storm; his 12-12 record ain't pretty, but his 3.04 ERA was better than either Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux. He made his second All-Star team as a 36-year-old. Anyone who had ever doubted Leo Mazzone's ability to turn lead into gold helped themselves to humble pie.
Of course, you've heard the rest of the story before--player excels with Braves, leaves for more money, and recedes into mediocrity or worse. Burkett was no different: his banner 2001 campaign earned him a two-year, $11 million contract from the Red Sox, for whom he pitched over 350 innings of 4.85 ERA ball before hanging up his spikes.