ATLANTA - John Smoltz feels so good he'd like spring training to start today.
The Braves right-hander, who missed last season following "Tommy John surgery" to replace the ligament in his right elbow, started twice-a-week throwing sessions two weeks ago and is ecstatic about his recovery.
"I know I still have a long road ahead of me, but everything is doing great," he said. "The best way to describe it is I feel younger. I'm probably going to surprise myself and some people this year. Usually, I'm trying to push spring training away in my mind, but I can't wait for it to start."
Smoltz says he's throwing at about 80 percent effort and has been pleasantly surprised by the movement and velocity on his fastball. He started mixing in some breaking balls during Saturday's throwing session at an indoor center near his Duluth, Ga., home and plans to continue his program at pitching coach Leo Mazzone's early camp next month.
"The breaking balls are the pitches that I relied so heavily on, I threw so hard and that's the pitch that's going to benefit the most from the surgery," said Smoltz, who was 11-8 with a 3.19 ERA in 1999. "But, it's also going to be the pitches that take the longest to get back in the groove, where I feel like I can throw them whenever I want to."
Smoltz, who will turn 34 in May, figures the surgery will add four or five years to his career. The first year back is always the most difficult and he's trying to temper his enthusiasm with a dose of reality, knowing the one-year anniversary of the surgery isn't until March and normal recovery time is 12 to 18 months.
"I'm able to do some things mechanically I've never been able to do and that's the exciting part," he said. "I'm excited about keeping the ball down without any pain. If there's one thing I had to work the hardest to do, it was throw the ball down without pain. Now, all I've got to do is build up endurance because I'm still weak in some areas. Obviously I didn't carry the load last year and I've got to get my arm and shoulder and legs used to each body part being in a position it should be in."
General manager John Schuerholz figured he would sign either Mike Hampton or Alex Rodriguez this winter. When he failed to land either free agent, then allowed pitchers Andy Ashby and Terry Mulholland, outfielders Reggie Sanders and Bobby Bonilla and shortstop Walt Weiss to depart, he did wonders for the payroll, but little to improve a team that made its quickest exit from the postseason since the early 1980s.
Three and out to the Cardinals didn't necessarily signal the beginning of the end of the team's reign, but it obviously jolted Schuerholz. In the three months since, he has turned over nearly one-third of the roster, which has seriously weakened the bullpen and bench, while making only two minor moves to strengthen either area, signing Dave Martinez and infielder Kurt Abbott.
With the loss of Bonilla and the probable departure of Wally Joyner, their two most productive pinch hitters last season, and the probable exit of reliever Scott Kamieniecki, the Braves have a bench that features a trio of singles hitters in Martinez, Abbott and Keith Lockhart, and three jobs open in the bullpen.
Schuerholz has set a formidable task for himself. Between now and the end of spring training, he must add at least one veteran reliever to the bullpen and reconstruct the bench, then hope first baseman Rico Brogna can replace Andres Galarraga's 100 RBI, 30-year-old second baseman Quilvio Veras can make a successful comeback from knee surgery and Smoltz can win 12-15 games.
"As I often remind people, we're not obligated to have those decisions made until we start the season," Schuerholz said. "A lot of times we make acquisitions late in the spring or early in the season to shore up what we think needs shoring up. We feel very confident that our club is going to be fine and set up well."
If nothing else, the Braves will be considerably younger by opening day. It's likely 24-year-old third baseman Wes Helms and 25-year-old outfielder George Lombard will win jobs as backups, 22-year-old pitcher Jason Marquis will be the fifth starter or a long reliever and another young pitcher will make the pilgrimage from Class A ball to join the bullpen, as Kevin McGlinchy did two years ago.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.