Braves LHP Hampton expected back at full strength in 2007

Dec 6, 2006 - 9:12 PM By Jim Keller PA SportsTicker Baseball Editor

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida (Ticker) -- Mike Hampton will be ready to help the Atlanta Braves get back what they lost in 2007.

Braves manager Bobby Cox said Wednesday that the lefthander will be completely healthy for the start of the season.

Hampton, who missed all of the 2006 campaign after undergoing left elbow surgery in September 2005, started throwing last September.

"Hampton's a quality starter. He's still young and he's got a new arm and we saw him throw in the instructional league," Cox said. "I plan on him being in the starting rotation. We are really happy with his progress. With his competitiveness and passion for the game, we are looking for good things."

Atlanta received a scare when Hampton felt something pop during an instructional league outing this fall, but the team was relieved to find it was just scar tissue.

"He came out after 1 2/3 innings, didn't face the last hitter," Cox said. "He popped an adhesion, so you know it was nothing - it is normal they tell me, very normal. So he got that sort of out of his system ahead of the ballgame."

After two miserable years with the Colorado Rockies, Hampton was traded to Atlanta prior to the 2003 season and has gone 32-20 in 72 starts with the Braves.

"We will watch him closer than most guys (when he comes back) probably, but I would think that if he can break camp feeling good, he could go seven innings initially," Cox said.

The 34-year-old is 138-101 with a 3.97 ERA in 13 years in the major leagues with Seattle, Houston, the New York Mets, Colorado and Atlanta. He finished second for the NL Cy Young Award in 1999, when he led the league with 22 wins for the Astros.

The Braves won 14 consecutive division crowns before slumping to a 79-83 record and a third-place finish in 2006.

"This offseason felt different because we didn't play in the middle of October," Cox said. "I think we have been more busy this year and more actual thoughts and ideas than ever before, for some reason.

"Disappointed we didn't make (the playoffs), like the entire team was, and it didn't take that much to get their either. That's what really got me. You could have had an off-year and won 84 or 83, and we'd consider that an off-year, and still be in."

If Tim Hudson can come back from a disappointing season - he was just 13-12 with a career-high 4.85 ERA - and Atlanta can avoid the injury bug, the team should be right back in the mix.

"We think our starting rotation is excellent," Cox said. "Hudson should be fine, he just had a hard time with his splitter, and it just never felt right. If he can win 15 games, I would be very happy. He is right there every year. But I know he's capable of winning more, if our bullpen holds up."

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