Commentary

Accomplished arms who may press on for '09 or call it a career

Originally Published: September 24, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

It's late September, and an aging pitcher's thoughts turn to golf, relaxing weekends at home in front of the big-screen TV and the always-daunting "honey do" list.

For the Tom Glavines, Greg Madduxes and Curt Schillings of the world, a crash course in reality also could mean an end to baseball as they know it.

As the regular season winds to a close, this week's edition of Starting 9 looks at nine accomplished pitchers -- eight starters and a closer -- who have reached the stage when there's no such thing as a sure thing. The guys listed below have combined for 63 All-Star appearances, 15 Cy Young Awards, and 18 seasons with 20 wins or more. And now, because of age, injury and the passage of time, they're perilously close to the "twilight" of their careers.

How many members of this star-laden group will pitch again in 2009? We rate their chances on a scale of zero to 100, from zero meaning "It's over" to 100 signifying "See you next spring."

Randy Johnson

Johnson

Randy Johnson (95 percent)

1 Johnson is likely to be back for two reasons: With 294 career victories, he has plenty of incentive to keep pitching, and he's been very good the past two months. Before Ryan Ludwick wrecked his night with a first-inning homer Tuesday, Johnson had thrown 10 quality starts in 11 appearances. He has a 2.69 ERA since the All-Star break, which is better than Tim Lincecum's and Cliff Lee's.

In spring training, manager Bob Melvin figured the Diamondbacks could count on 20-25 starts and maybe 150 innings from the Big Unit. Johnson has exceeded those expectations with 29 starts and 175 innings, and his 10-10 record is largely a reflection of poor run support and a shaky Arizona bullpen.

Most important, now that Johnson's chronically bad back feels better, he's able to enjoy playing again. He finally took a step backward this year to stop and smell the roses -- not to mention the popcorn and the infield grass.

"I enjoy the whole vibe and the whole atmosphere a little bit more now," Johnson said in a recent interview. "Before, I was so focused on the day that I pitched, I was like a robot. It'll be a fun offseason if I can get through this season healthy and give my back a chance to relax."

Johnson lives in Phoenix and has a house in Southern California. A return to Arizona seems logical, considering he can help the D-backs sell some tickets with his run to 300 wins. But the Dodgers might lose Derek Lowe to free agency and have a decision awaiting them on Brad Penny and his 2009 option, so Johnson could make sense as a short-term fit with Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda in the rotation.

Trevor Hoffman

Hoffman

Trevor Hoffman (85 percent)

2 The Padres fended off a strong run by Cleveland to re-sign Hoffman the previous time he filed for free agency. This time, they seem intent on a less-messy and less-protracted negotiation. Both general manager Kevin Towers and Hoffman have said they want to continue this union into 2009, so the signs point toward an agreement.

But it remains to be seen whether Hoffman will go for the famed "San Diego discount," and length of contract could be an issue. Hoffman has 552 career saves and wants to reach 600, so he probably will be looking for a two-year deal.

Hoffman, although not the Trevor of old, should benefit from supply and demand. It's not a deep closer market, with Kerry Wood and Brian Fuentes as the major options after Francisco Rodriguez, so Hoffman is likely to get some calls if things don't work out with the Padres.

Hoffman's 3.95 ERA is the worst of his career, and those eight home run balls in 43 1/3 innings are not a good sign. But he keeps himself in tremendous shape, and his stuff actually improved a tick this season after elbow surgery. That 46-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio certainly is impressive.

Mike Mussina

Mussina

Mike Mussina (80 percent)

3 Mixed signals are swirling around Mussina. Some people think he's ready to give up the grind and fade from the scene back home to Montoursville, Pa. "I think he's going to retire," one of Mussina's friends told ESPN's Buster Olney.

But Mussina has indicated he would like to return for another go-round if the Yankees are interested, and it's hard to imagine they wouldn't be. Hank Steinbrenner won't mess around as the team moves into a new park, so New York probably will apply the full-court press.

Mussina enjoyed a major revival this year, with a 19-9 record and 3.47 ERA. He has missed time with arm-related issues only twice in his career (a strained shoulder in 1993 and a stiff right elbow in 2004), so health isn't a concern. And given the state of their pitching staff, the Yankees are in no shape to turn their backs on a sure thing. Chien-Ming Wang will be back, but even if the Yanks can lure CC Sabathia to the Bronx, he'll need a few sidekicks.

Regardless of whether Mussina wins 20 games for the first time in his career this season, he has strengthened his Hall of Fame case by passing Bob Gibson, Carl Hubbell and Bob Feller on the career wins list and moving past Cy Young for 19th on the strikeouts list. Even if he falls short of 300 wins (he has 269), another good season can only help Mussina's Cooperstown chances.

Andy Pettitte

Pettitte

Andy Pettitte (80 percent)

4 Pettitte has had several clunkers this year. He has allowed 10 or more hits in six starts. Right-handers are batting .325 against him, and he posted a 5.28 ERA at Yankee Stadium.

Nevertheless, Pettitte has contributed 14 wins and 204 innings for a staff that lacked depth and stability. His back held up nicely, and he thinks his shoulder should be OK after a winter of rest. The Yankees have some front-office housekeeping issues to tend to, but manager Joe Girardi has made it clear he wants Pettitte back in the team's rotation next season.

Let's face it: Unless the kids can turn it around and contribute en masse next year, New York will need to fill some holes in its rotation through trades or free agency. Although Pettitte won't be a cheap sign -- he made $16 million this season -- he probably would be willing to take a one-year deal. That will provide roster flexibility and give the Yankees one fewer starter to sign on the open market.

Pettitte is no world-beater at this stage of his career, but he's a known commodity, he'll provide innings, and he can handle the rigors of New York. Anything that prevents the Yankees from committing to another Carl Pavano or Jaret Wright is definitely a good thing.

And if things fail to work out in New York, maybe Drayton McLane will consider a reunion tour in Houston. Pettitte did finish 17-9 and pitch in a World Series for the Astros in 2005.

Pedro Martinez

Martinez

Pedro Martinez (65 percent)

5 The final year of Martinez's four-year, $52 million contract has been about as disheartening as it gets. He's been dogged by injuries, declining velocity and a case of homer-itis. Martinez also endured a personal ordeal when his father died in the Dominican Republic, and the loss has weighed on him mentally and emotionally.

"I was very close to my dad," Martinez said in a recent interview. "I'm not going to lie. It took a lot for me to be in the game, as much as I wanted to be, between my health and my dad's illness, that was a lot to carry around."

After another shaky performance Saturday against Atlanta, Martinez unburdened himself with the New York media. He confirmed that he wants to pitch in 2009 but said he needs to go home, clear his head and regain his focus.

Health always will be a concern with Martinez. As one scout observes, he has shown some "shoulder labor" and typically throws 82-84 mph in the early innings before his velocity gradually increases. "There's still something going on in there. Nobody is going to tell me any different," the scout said.

Still, Martinez is smart and resourceful to try to reinvent himself as a finesse guy. It's not far-fetched to envision him finding new life with the Dodgers, Marlins or some other warm-weather National League team in a pitchers' park.

"I'm not 27 or 28 anymore," Martinez said. "I'm 36 now, and it's more difficult for me to do things than it used to be. I have to focus more and be more precise with my pitches because I'm not going to get it by you at 88, 89 or 90 unless I add the movement or location. These guys nowadays are too good."

John Smoltz

Smoltz

John Smoltz (55 percent)

6 Atlanta general manager Frank Wren is open-minded yet realistic about Smoltz and Tom Glavine. Both pitchers want to give it another shot in 2009, and the Braves would like to oblige them. In a perfect world, they'll come back strong, contribute to a winner and go out on a high note.

But Wren is walking a fine line right now. He wants to give Smoltz and Glavine an opportunity to contribute if they're able. But because they're both coming off surgery, he knows it would be reckless to depend on them from the outset.

"We can't find out in spring training that their surgery didn't fix the problem, and now we're stuck and we say, 'Uh-oh, what do we do now?'" Wren said. "We can't be in that position. I've told both of them that, and they understand that."

Smoltz is coming off the more serious procedure. In early June, Dr. James Andrews repaired a torn labrum and injuries to his biceps and acromioclavicular joint. But according to Wren, Smoltz is doing "tremendously well" in his rehab. He has regained his range of motion and plans to begin soft tossing in October.

As a power pitcher, Smoltz is at a disadvantage. But this is his 12th career visit to the disabled list, so he knows the drill. And he's capable of starting or relieving, so that versatility enhances his options.

Smoltz also has given indications that if things fail to work out with the Braves, he might consider pitching elsewhere. For Glavine, it's Atlanta or nowhere.

Tom Glavine

Glavine

Tom Glavine (50 percent)

7 In late August, Glavine traveled to Dr. James Andrews' office in Birmingham, Ala., and underwent a "300-win tuneup," as agent Gregg Clifton calls it. Andrews made some minor repairs to Glavine's rotator cuff, cleaned out scar tissue in his elbow and fixed a small hole in his flexor tendon. The elbow damage was less severe than he and the Braves had feared.

Now Glavine is in the midst of a rehab, and he's intent on coming back at age 42 and giving it one final shot. The numbers this year were not encouraging: Glavine allowed 11 homers in 63 1/3 innings, had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1-to-1 and posted a 7.06 ERA at Turner Field. But because Glavine relies more on location and guile than velocity, he doesn't have to be overpowering.

"He's probably healthier now that at any time in the last four to five years," Clifton said. "I think he wants to play one more year and go out on his terms rather than go out on injured terms. That's the old hockey player in him."

Greg Maddux

Maddux

Greg Maddux (40 percent)

8 Pluses: He's still capable of summoning that old Mad Dog magic, as he showed with seven shutout innings against Colorado recently. He's one of the healthiest pitchers on this list, for sure. He's a great addition to any clubhouse with his insightful, low-ego presence, and he'll always help the other pitchers on his staff. "He'll help the hitters, too," a National League executive said.

Minuses: The numbers just weren't very good this season. Maddux fared well at Petco Park and Dodger Stadium, two pitcher-oriented parks. But he's 3-8 with a 5.52 ERA on the road, and opponents are batting .313 against him in away games. And what message will it send if the Dodgers win the NL West and Maddux isn't part of their postseason rotation?

With Scott Boras as his agent, will Maddux settle for a contract with a low base salary ($1 million or $2 million) and a batch of incentives? Maddux's options are limited. He won't pitch in the American League, and unless he thinks it would be cool to finish his career with his brother Mike in Milwaukee, the landscape is confined to the NL West.

Maddux already is making his second tour with the Dodgers, and the Padres probably will devote their resources to bringing back Trevor Hoffman and Brian Giles. Could it work in San Francisco? Maybe, but that seems like a long shot.

Maddux is tied with Roger Clemens for eighth place on the career win list with 354, so unless he's intent on passing the Rocket, he has no milestones to motivate him. Although Maddux always has been cryptic when discussing his future, this could be the winter he'll listen to his pride and decide to head to the first tee.

Curt Schilling

Schilling

Curt Schilling (15 percent)

9 He'll turn 42 in November, and he's three months removed from major shoulder surgery. In an entry on his 38pitches.com blog after surgery, Schilling appeared to come to grips with the notion that his career is nearing an end.

"I won't come back throwing 85 with so-so crap," he wrote. "If there is not an option to come back and be good, I won't."

Unlike some pitchers on this list, Schilling might be busier in retirement than he was as a player. He's active in the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), and his affinity for war-gaming has led to some thriving business ventures. He's the founder of 38 Studios, a game-development company, and Multi-Man Publishing, a company that produces military board game simulations.

Schilling also is happy to share his political views with anyone who'll listen. Judging from his blog posts, he might be interested in the secretary of defense post in a McCain administration.

Others of note
Jamie Moyer (90 percent): Maybe he really can pitch until he's 50. The Phillies are paying Moyer $3.5 million this year, and he's 15-7 with a 3.78 ERA. Philadelphia management should run, not walk, to re-sign him.

Mike Hampton (60 percent): He's 3-3 with a 4.78 ERA in his first action after three injury-plagued years. Now that Hampton's $121 million contract is history, is he motivated enough to come to spring training and try it again at age 36?

Livan Hernandez (10 percent): The Twins trumpeted him as a calming, veteran presence before all those floggings prompted them to release him. His numbers in Colorado have been just as grim.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer