He's back: Smoltz returns to Braves as closer

Monday, December 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ John Smoltz could have started for another team. He probably could have made more money.

In the end, he decided that closing for the Atlanta Braves was a job he wanted to keep.

Smoltz pulled himself out of the free agent market Sunday, staying with the Braves for a dlrs 30 million, three-year contract.

The 1996 Cy Young Award winner was courted by several teams, who dangled the promise of a starter's role. The Braves wanted him to remain a closer, believing it would preserve his fragile elbow while filling a crucial role on the team's pitching staff.

``We think he could be a dominant pitcher in that role for a long, long time,'' Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz said.

Smoltz has spent his entire 14-year career with the Braves _ nearly all of it as a starter. He went 24-8 in '96 and won at least 11 games nine other times.

He also required three operations on his right elbow, the most serious being the dreaded Tommy John procedure that kept him out for the entire 2000 season.

When Smoltz's elbow continued to bother him last season, requiring two more trips to the disabled list, he finally turned to the bullpen as a last resort.

Pitching one or two innings a night, Smoltz was overpowering. He had 10 saves in 11 chances with a 1.59 ERA, struck out 37 in 34 innings and allowed first batters to hit just .097 (3-of-31).

Smoltz also had two saves against Houston in the playoffs.

``We saw how dominant he could be in that role as closer, how well it sets up our whole pitching staff,'' Schuerholz said. ``He made our entire pitching staff far more effective than it's ever been, I think, from the starters through the relievers.''

The 34-year-old Smoltz becomes the highest-paid closer in baseball and surpasses the dlrs 8 million he made in 2001, the final season of a five-year deal.

The new contract includes salaries of dlrs 10 million in each of the next three seasons, and a dlrs 12 million team option for 2005. If Smoltz becomes a starter, he would get a performance bonus of dlrs 100,000 per start.

``This is a real important piece for a club that focuses on pitching as its primary asset,'' Schuerholz said. ``To have a closer of his caliber available for three years is very, very comforting.''

Smoltz was among 13 Atlanta players who filed for free agency, but clearly the top priority. The agents for catcher Javy Lopez and All-Star pitcher John Burkett have both indicated that their clients could be playing elsewhere next season.

The signing of Smoltz was the second major move of the offseason for the Braves. Gold Glove outfielder Andruw Jones, who could have been a free agent after 2002, signed a dlrs 75 million, six-year contract.

Those moves signal that the Braves aren't planning a significant cut to their dlrs 90 million payroll, despite a nearly 13 percent drop in attendance last season.

Smoltz's representatives met with the team Friday and Saturday before agreeing to a deal Sunday afternoon by telephone.

Smoltz was not available for comment. He left Sunday for a weeklong trip to Las Vegas.

Smoltz felt his elbow was strong enough to return to a starting rotation in 2002.

``I'm far from done,'' he said a couple of weeks ago. ``I can do a lot of things. I feel I can win 20 games next year, or save 50.''

The Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees were among the teams interested in signing Smoltz as a starter _ perhaps at a higher salary than he got from the Braves.

``I'm not surprised. He's a quality pitcher and a quality person,'' Schuerholz said. ``I know there was at least one very serious suitor. There might have been others.''

The Braves had a homefield advantage in negotiations.

While Smoltz is a Michigan native, he lives year-round in Atlanta and is active in the community. He made it clear all along that he wouldn't move his home even if he changed teams.

``I don't know if he was looking seriously,'' Schuerholz said. ``I never got the impression that John didn't enjoy closing. I thought he enjoyed closing.''