KISSIMMEE, Fla. — When Tommy Hanson arrived for his first big league camp, he was assigned to a corner of the Atlanta Braves’ clubhouse with a bunch of other guys wearing football-like numbers.
The barely-out-of-high-schoolers. The journeymen. The guys who’ll spend their season in outposts such as Mississippi and Myrtle Beach.
In fact, Hanson only has half a locker. He must share his stall with another non-roster invitee, Kris Medlen.
But this inglorious, crowded spot is merely a stopping-off point for Hanson, a chance for him to get a sampling of life in the majors before he claims a more prominent position. This is the guy who’s supposed to restore the luster to the Braves’ rotation, the one who’ll provide a link to a glorious era when pitchers named Smoltz and Maddux and Glavine were in their prime.
"This kid is going to be a No. 1 starter in Atlanta soon," Braves star Chipper Jones said. "There’s no holding him back. Even if I had to go to a six-man rotation, I would do it, just to get this kid some experience and get him on his way."
Spring training is overrun with hyped-up prospects who’ll never spend a day in the big leagues, but it’s hard not to get excited about this laid-back, 6-foot-6 Californian with the dazzling right arm. The slider, said manager Bobby Cox, is a lot like the one thrown by John Smoltz. That’s a good comparison, said Jones, except Hanson has a wider repertoire than the only pitcher in baseball history to win 200 games and save 150 more.
The Braves might have acquired San Diego ace Jake Peavy during the offseason, if only they had been willing to give up a player who’s never pitched above Double-A.
"I’d love to see him come down here and dazzle and make this club," Jones said. "I think he can pay immediate dividends."
Sitting on the far side of the clubhouse, a wall separating him from the more established members of the team, Hanson merely smiles when asked about all the hype.
"I’m not a flashy guy. I’m not a guy where that’s going to go to my head," Hanson said. "If everyone wants to write how good I am or how good I can be, go for it. It’s fun to read that stuff. It’s cool. But it’s not going to affect me or anything like that."
Hanson is coming off a breakthrough year in which he dominated for two different minor league teams and was basically untouchable in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League.
At Class-A Myrtle Beach, he needed only seven starts to earn a promotion, going 3-1 with a 0.90 ERA and allowing a minuscule 15 hits in 40 innings. He moved up to Mississippi, where he threw a no-hitter in his ninth Double-A start and went on to post a record of 8-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 18 appearances. He had 114 strikeouts in 98 innings at the higher level, including a career-best 14 in one start.
Hanson really turned it on in the desert. While the Arizona Fall League is normally known for its lofty hitting stats, the Braves prospect went 5-0 with a 0.63 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 28 2-3 innings. He was selected MVP, the first pitcher to claim the award.
When the Braves were trying to acquire Peavy, the Padres demanded that Hanson be part of the deal. Atlanta wouldn’t give him up, not even for a pitcher still in his 20s who won the NL Cy Young Award just two years ago. After that, few teams even brought up Hanson’s name in trade talks, knowing he was about the only untouchable player on the roster.
Everyone raves about his maturity, the fact that he can throw four pitches — fastball, curveball, slider and changeup — for strikes.
"It won’t be long before he’s up here," Cox predicted. "He can throw one bad pitch in the ‘pen and correct it on the next pitch. Some guys, it takes six or seven pitches to figure it out. That tells you about his makeup. He’s way ahead of the game."
Growing up in Redlands, Calif., Hanson used to watch the Braves on television when he got home from school. With the three-hour time difference, they would just be getting started on the East Coast about the time he walked in the door.
He watched Cox barking from the dugout, Jones ripping line drives from both sides of the plate and, of course, all those great pitchers who served as the cornerstone for 14 straight division titles. Greg Maddux won three Cy Young Awards in Atlanta, Tom Glavine claimed two and Smoltz captured one of his own. They were joined over the years by starters such as Steve Avery, Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood, all of whom had big years for the Braves.
Hanson is ready to lead the next great Atlanta rotation.
"I want to pitch a long time," he said. "That would be the ultimate goal to do something like those guys. I want to get better. I want to have a good season this year and hopefully be up in Atlanta at some point, helping us win some games. I’m just going one step at a time right now."
While Jones is pushing for Hanson to get a shot right from opening day, he’ll likely spend at least part of the season at Triple-A Gwinnett, the Braves’ new farm club in suburban Atlanta. The team doesn’t want to rush its prized prospect to the big leagues faster than it has to, especially when it bolstered the rotation by signing Derek Lowe, trading for Javier Vazquez, acquiring Japanese all-star Kenshin Kawakami and bringing back the 42-year-old Glavine for another season.
But it seems just a matter of time before Hanson is squeezing someone out of a spot.
"This kid is that good," Jones said. "The power arm is something this club has been missing for a while. Smoltzie has a power arm. He can get the strikeout when he needs it. That’s why he’s such a good pitcher in the postseason. Power arms are good to have in the postseason."
The postseason? Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves here?
Hanson seems to take it all in stride, though he has to admit that it seems a little strange to hear who’s building up the expectations.
"I’ve watched Chipper play since I was a little kid," Hanson said, breaking into an embarrassed grin. "It’s crazy hearing stuff like that from him. And Bobby Cox saying I have a Smoltz-like slider. It’s just a good feeling. The work I’ve put in must be paying off. It’s just kind of cool to hear those comments."