As things stand right now, the Braves have three spots in the five-man rotation locked in. Russ Ortiz, putative ace, will be back for one more season (I believe the team has an option on his services for 2004). Mike Hampton is signed through 2067 or something. Horacio Ramirez didn’t have the season some rookies had but pitched more than well enough to keep his spot. The Braves will need to fill two spots — or one and a half, looking at it another way — and have a number of candidates. Breaking them down:

Greg Maddux: Maddux didn’t have a good year by his own standards. But he pitched just about as well as Ortiz and Hampton, and nobody’s complaining about them, and he’s still the one Braves starter most likely to go out and have a great game. He should get his 300th win next season, and for for sentimental reasons you’d like to see it in a Braves uniform. I think the team would like to bring him back, but there’s a time constraint. I’m pretty certain they won’t offer him arbitration this time around, and so if he’s going to come back, an agreement would have to be reached before the tender date.

Paul Byrd: History may show that the Paul Byrd signing was the biggest mistake of John Scheurholz’s tenure with the team. People tried to blame Maddux for the Millwood deal, but Scheurholz wouldn’t have been so stretched financially if he hadn’t given two years and ten million to an ordinary pitcher like Byrd. And then Byrd never pitched last year. I don’t really expect him to contribute this time, either. But until he’s officially shut down, the Braves won’t be able to count him out.

Shane Reynolds: Please, no. The Braves do have an option, but they’d be insane to pick it up.

Jason Marquis: I’m not sure he even fits in the team’s plans anymore. Beaten out by Ramirez in spring, banished to the deepest depths of the bullpen and Richmond, Jason then compounded his problems by complaining that he was a starter, not a reliever. His velocity looks okay, but he doesn’t seem to know where the ball is going much of the time. Trading Odalis Perez instead of Marquis in the Sheffield deal is another of those things looking to haunt the GM.

Jung Bong, Trey Hodges: Both broke out in relief early this past season, only to fall apart and eventually wind up in mopup roles. Whether they just didn’t get enough regular work or the league just caught up to them, they aren’t going to get many points for their 2003 performances and will need to look really good in spring to get prominent roles. I’m sure they aren’t going to be counted on this offseason unless the team is totally broken down.

Jaret Wright: Pitched magnificently as the setup man in September and October after getting jettisoned by San Diego. He’s got a lot of starting experience, but he’s also a recent Tommy John’s patient. There’s been word that Leo thinks he might move into the rotation, but I think he’s better off in the pen and letting his elbow continue to heal.

Adam Wainwright: I think that the Braves might have already pencilled him in as the fifth starter for 2004. He pitched well after making the jump to AA; he wasn’t dominant, but for a 21-year-old receiving his first exposure to the upper minors he was more than good enough. He’s the one pitcher the Braves have most likely to be an elite starter going on, and there are a lot of hopes riding on him. But you probably know the track record of minor league pitchers.

Kevin Millwood: Certainly won’t be back in Philadelphia, where his time with the team ended badly. There’s been speculation almost from the moment he was traded — at least, once we Braves fans stopped smashing things — that he would return as a free agent the next year. I suppose it’s a possibility, if Scheurholz can convince the suits to make a commitment over three or four years. Beyond that, there’s the question of how much you trust Millwood. He’s got six and a half seasons of major league experience now, and in those years he’s been excellent twice and essentially average the rest of the time. On the other hand, he’ll be only 29 next year, and a lot of power pitchers don’t break out until they’re in their late twenties, or even later.

Tom Glavine: Sounds weird, but it’s actually doable. The Mets are finally admitting they’re in a rebuilding phase, and Glavine doesn’t make any sense for them. They would probably like to see someone take him off their hands and would pick up a lot of his contract, too. He doesn’t make much sense for the Braves, either, but it’s something to think about.

Someone Else: There are a lot of pitchers available in the free agent market. Andy Pettitte hasn’t been mentioned as coming to Atlanta, but he’s a southerner and the Yankees seem surprisingly uneager to bring him back. I have heard Bartolo Colon’s name mentioned. Sidney Ponson will probably leave San Francisco. There are others, but those are the ones that come to mind. The Braves might also make another move after Javier Vazquez, whom they supposedly had a trade in place for before the Major League offices blocked it.

Prediction: The Braves will try to sign Maddux to a contract, maybe something with a lot of incentives but a much lower base salary. If that doesn’t work, they will go after another free agent — always keeing the Vazquez trade possibility open. They’ll sign someone for less 2004 money than Maddux made in 2003, probably for 3-4 years. The market for starting pitchers isn’t what it was a few years ago. They’ll keep up the pretense that Byrd will pitch for as long as possible, but will shut him down in March. Wainwright will be given every chance to win the fifth starter spot, while Bong, Marquis, and a cast of thousands are made his competition. Shane Reynolds signs with the Devil Rays, is released in May, and the Braves bring him back on another minimum contract just to annoy me.