What we know: Three members of the second-half starting rotation are free agents. Mike Hampton needs surgery. John Smoltz wants to start.

What we don’t know: What’s really wrong with Horacio Ramirez’s shoulder. If Smoltz can hold up as a starter, and if the Braves are even interested in trying. What the plans are for Juan Cruz and Jose Capellan. Pretty much anything else.

Right now, there is only one sure thing in the starting rotation, John Thomson. Thomson came on late in the season, and his injury (and the subsequent stretching of the bullpen) was a key to the Braves’ NLDS loss. I’m not saying they would have won if he’d been healthy, but they’d have had a better shot. Thomson is not an ace, not for a playoff-caliber rotation, but he’s a solid number two or a good number three.

Hampton also came on late, and was the Braves’ second-best pitcher in the NLDS nightmare, the only one to make a good start. However, his knee is in bad shape. He will have surgery, and hopefully would be able to pitch full-strength in the spring. It should be recalled that he came on late in 2003 as well, only to start 2004 horribly.

Russ Ortiz will probably be gone. He was terrible down the stretch this year and made a poor start in the NLDS only to be bailed out by the offense and bullpen. Always miscast as an ace, Ortiz will find his true calling as an overpaid big-market mid-rotation starter. I covered Wright and Byrd pretty extensively in the free agents entry; the Braves probably want both back, but Wright only if the price is reasonable, and Byrd only if the price is much lower. There are a lot of pitchers with similar but better credentials to Wright on the free agent list (see below) so that might keep his price down.

Of the pitchers currently on the roster, there are a number that have starting experience who weren’t in the rotation at the end. Horacio Ramirez’s initial diagnosis made Bill James’ definition of tendinitis (“It hurts and we don’t know why.”) even more on target than usual. If you just want a wild guess, he’s got some sort of tear that doesn’t show up in MRIs because the swelling holds it in place. But that’s just a guess. If Ramirez is back, we’d get to see if he can continue to put up ERAs that a guy with his peripherals shouldn’t be able to. The Kirk Rueter comparison still holds, though Rueter no longer shows up on Ramirez’s top ten list. Both, however, had short seasons at age 24.

John Smoltz wants to start, but then he’s wanted to start for years now and the Braves have never even hinted at considering it. I wonder if they might now that they watched their best pitcher sit on his hands in the bullpen while the season washed away. It’s possible that the Braves acquired Chri*s R**tsm* so that he might move into the closer’s role this season and Smoltz to the rotation — or elsewhere, if things worked out that way. However, R**tsm*’s utter failure probably kills that, and someone else would have to close if Smoltz starts.

Speaking of R**tsm*, he has starting experience, and was only moved to the bullpen in 2003. He was actually a good starter, despite what you might have heard — or might think — in 2002; he was only 6-12, but the Reds were dreadful, and he had a 3.64 ERA, well below the league. He made three starts in 2003 — one good and one bad in Tiny American Ballpark, then one really bad one in Coors Field, and was sent to the pen. Classic Reds overreaction. It is my opinion that R**tsm* would be better served as a starter, despite the lack of a reliable offspeed pitch. He doesn’t get many strikeouts, but he has pretty good control and supposedly gets ground balls, though many of those seem to land in the upper deck somehow. He’d make a good middle-of-the-rotation starter. Probably somewhere else. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the Sabermetric teams, like the Red Sox — he was originally drafted by them — take a flyer on him as a starter. The R**tsm*/Lowe similarities are eerie.)

Juan Cruz, like R**tsm*, has been haunted by a perception that he lacks the pitch variety to be a starter. All I know is that when he came up in 2001 the Cubs put him in the rotation and he went 3-1 with a 3.22 ERA, which normally would make a team consider him a building block of the future. Showing the judgment that the Cubs are famed for, they spent the next two years bouncing between the rotation, the bullpen, and Iowa; it’s no wonder that he was mediocre in 2002 and awful in 2003. I wanted the Braves to give Cruz a bigger role, but in retrospect putting him in that Earl Weaver long reliever spot, to get his bearings and to get Leo a chance to see him work, was the right thing to do. I expect he’ll get a bigger role in 2005, but that might be as a starter, as the new closer, or as a primary setup man.

Jose Capellan is considered the Braves’ top pitching prospect now. He has a great fastball for certain. However, he doesn’t have any changeup to speak of and his curveball — if curveball it is, it looks more like a slider to me — is only sporadically effective, and is sporadically up in the zone. On the other hand, he’s very young and only a couple years removed from surgery. I think he might be better off with a Smoltz-style fastball-slider-splitter repertoire than the fastball-curveball-changeup that the Braves seem to favor, but that’s Leo’s territory and he generally knows what he’s doing. I expect the Braves to give him a shot as a starter in spring, but I don’t think he’s ready for that yet. He might be better off in Richmond than in the pen. Remember the experience of Jason Marquis, who pitched just well enough to derail his career until traded to St. Louis.

There are some other candidates in the system. Dan Meyer looked good in a couple of innings as a callup and might be in the team’s plans, but I’m guessing falls behind Capellan. Still, where was Ramirez two years ago? Kyle Davies is behind the other two, but still a top prospect. There are lots of other guys, most of whom will probably wind up elsewhere; Brad would be the man to ask.

There are a number of starting pitchers of interest on the market. There are two Hall of Famers who are still effective pitchers, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. It seems unlikely Atlanta would be a suitor for either, but you can never tell with Clemens and Martinez might slip through the cracks if the Sox and Yankees both turn elsewhere. Another top starter on the market is Brad Radke of Minnesota. Radke was 11-8 but with a good ERA for the Twins, and I’ve heard that the Braves have long had some interest in him.

Kevin Millwood was rumored to head back to Atlanta almost from the moment the Braves traded him. He wound up taking an arbitration offer from the Phillies last season, but that’s not likely to happen again. Millwood was 9-6, but his ERA was a career-worst 4.85, yielding his first ERA+ below 100. He suffered through injuries and a pitching coach he couldn’t relate to. He might take a lower salary to go home to Leo… Millwood’s top ten comps through Age 29 read like an honor roll of guys who suddenly fell apart. Jack McDowell! Pat Hentgen! Jaime Navarro! Doug Drabek! Ron Darling! Chan Ho Park! Of the ten, eight collapsed at about Millwood’s current age. Rick Sutcliffe survived, and we don’t know about Freddy Garcia yet. Bartolo Colon is still young enough to turn it around, but put up a 5 ERA last season.

Matt Clement has bad timing, or bad luck. If he’d gone into free agency with his records in 2002 (12-11) or 2003 (14-12) he’d likely have made more money than he will after going 9-13. However, he put up a better ERA this year (3.68) and struck out more than a man an inning; he would have struck out more than 200 and been among the league leaders but for a late season muscle strain, which probably also knocked the Cubs out of the playoffs. My guess is that Clement will be one of the best pitchers in this free agent class, and I’d love to get him.

Carl Pavano was one of the better pitchers in the NL this year, going 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA after several years of frustration and a slightly below-average 2003. Just in time for free agency! If you really think he’s turned it around, he’s the type of pitcher — good but not extreme strikeout numbers, good control — the Braves normally covet. If.

I’m intrigued by Jon Lieber, another of that type (Lieber had the fewest walks per nine in the AL this season) and one with a longer track record of success, though he had major surgery and missed 2003, and never has had a season like Pavano’s 2004. Lieber won 14 games this year, albeit for the Yankees, for whom almost anyone could put up a winning record. On the other hand, their terrible defense didn’t do him any favors. If he’s healthy, and the Yankees don’t bring him back, he’s a possibility.

The Braves are always rumored to be interested in Kristin Benson, and if she doesn’t re-sign with the Mets the Braves might make a play. I really don’t know what all the fuss is about, what with his three straight seasons of adjusted ERAs worse than the league and his record of mediocre strikeout and walk numbers. Benson left his best fastball on the operating table, and now is what he is; a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater with a girl’s name and a hot wife.

Chris Carpenter goes in the Lieber category of a guy who seems to have bounced back from major surgery and a missed 2003 season to be an effective starter in front of a great offense. Carpenter was 15-5 with a 3.46 ERA this year. I like him less than Lieber because (a) he did this in front of a great defensive team, (b) his walk numbers, while good, aren’t nearly as good as Lieber’s (though his strikeouts are a lot better) (c) he doesn’t have Lieber’s track record, and (d) he’s hurt again. Actually, that last might bring down his price to where he could be one of two pitchers brought in.

Carpenter’s teammate Matt Morris also won 15 games, but didn’t pitch at all well and had an ERA well above the league. He’s had two straight seasons of major decline and already had surgery once in 1999. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Morris return to prominence in a few years. I wouldn’t want the Braves to pay him to rehab, though.

Would Odalis Perez return to Atlanta? I don’t know; it depends upon how much he blames the Braves for his arm injury and how bad the blood is. Perez is clearly the best lefthanded starter on the market this year. His up-down career path led him to an up year headed into free agency; I think that the Dodgers will seek to keep him.

A few other names… David Wells is old and fat and annoying, and he can still pitch and I’d sign him to a one year deal with an option in about five seconds. Eric Milton is very overrated and all the people who wanted him on the All-Star team were very stupid. I wouldn’t sign Jose Lima if he was the last pitcher on the market and the next option was a guy out of A-ball. There are some other guys who look like solid enough rotation filler but I don’t see their value to the Braves. Al Leiter has a mutual option with the Mets and I think he’ll either stay there or retire and take a broadcasting job. (He’s good, isn’t he?)

A trade? Maybe. I don’t think there will be much of a market, to be honest. There are always Randy Johnson rumors, but it’s more likely that the Braves would be the third leg of a trade with the Yankees (providing prospects to Arizona and getting someone — Javier Vazquez? Hideki Matsui? — from New York) than to get the Big Unit. Ben Sheets looks like a fantasy, because I can’t imagine even the Brewers would be that stupid.

I mentioned this last season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mets shop Tom Glavine, and they might be willing to take on a lot of his salary. But the feelings about Glavine are still pretty poisonous, among fans anyway, and really he’s not a top of the rotation starter anymore.

Again, I’m sure Scheurholz will pull something off. He has a lot of options.