Hampton, who signed one of the richest contracts in baseball history but hasn’t pitched for the Atlanta Braves since 2005 because of injuries, hurt his right hamstring during the first inning of his very first start in the Mexican Winter League.
The former 20-game winner will need up to a month to recover, which ends his stint south of the border. The Braves now must wait until February to get a realistic assessment of Hampton’s chances of returning to the mound.
"There’s still some questions, and we don’t have all of them answered," general manager Frank Wren said Tuesday. "We’ll have to wait until spring training for those answers."
The Braves are encouraged by Hampton’s recovery from two straight elbow surgeries, having watched him throw in the Arizona Fall League. But, unlike last season, they aren’t penciling him in as a member of the rotation.
If the 35-year-old Hampton is healthy, great. If not, the Braves have other options.
"We feel like there’s depth we did not have last year," Wren said. "Part of that was not having Mike healthy for a couple of years. We hope he’s healthy this year, but we’ve added enough pieces to be a little more confident going into spring training."
Atlanta’s big signing came last week, when Tom Glavine returned to his original team for an $8 million, one-year deal. The Braves are counting on him to join John Smoltz (14-8) and Tim Hudson (16-10) at the top of the rotation, giving the team three reliable starters.
They also have Chuck James (11-10), top prospects Jair Jurrjens and Jo-Jo Reyes, and journeyman Jeff Bennett, who pitched surprisingly well in two late-season starts and has kept up his strong work in the Venezuelan winter league, Wren said.
But the Braves will be even stronger with a healthy Hampton, who’s going into the final year of the staggering eight-year, $121 million deal he signed with Colorado. He is owed $15 million in 2008.
Hampton’s agent, Mark Rodgers, did not immediately return a message left at his Florida office.
A 22-game winner with Houston in 1999 and a key member of the New York Mets’ NL championship team the following year, Hampton has yet to win more than 14 games since signing his big contract. He was a total flop in two years with the Rockies, then came to the Braves in a three-team trade before the ‘03 season.
Hampton showed signs of turning things around, going 14-8 and 13-9 in helping Atlanta add to its record streak of 14 straight division titles. But he struggled with arm problems in 2005, pitching only 12 games before finally undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery.
After missing the entire ‘06 season, the Braves felt Hampton was ready to return. But he was unable to make a start in spring training after straining a side muscle in batting practice, then experienced more pain in his elbow while warming up for a rehab stint in the minors.
This time, he had a torn tendon in his elbow, sending him back to the operating room. Another season lost.
Eager to get started on yet another comeback, Hampton volunteered to pitch in Mexico. His first start was Thanksgiving Day, but he was hurt right away.
"There was a ball back through the middle, and when he broke for it he felt his hamstring strain a little bit," Wren said. "He finished the inning, but when he came back out for his second inning and started throwing his warm-up tosses, he felt it strain even more. He couldn’t pitch another inning."
Wren said it will take at least three to four weeks for Hampton to be healthy enough to resume throwing.
"There’s only four weeks left in their regular season," the GM said. "It’s kind of unrealistic to get over the strain and then throw the several side sessions he would need before he could go back out there and pitch."
Now, there’s nothing Hampton can do except wait for spring training.
"He was really the driving force in this. He told us, ‘Find me any place to pitch, and I’ll go pitch this winter,"’ Wren said. "The bright spot is his arm feels great. We’re all just frustrated that he had an injury that curtailed his ability to go out there and pitch more innings and really get a sense of how everything is going to feel going into spring training."