ATLANTA — After more than two decades with the Braves, John Smoltz appears likely to finish his stellar career wearing a different uniform.
In a stunning end to one of baseball's longest runs, Smoltz reached preliminary agreement on a contract with the Boston Red Sox after failing to work out a deal to return for his 22nd season with the Braves.
A person familiar with the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity because the final paperwork had not been completed, said Smoltz will sign a guaranteed deal with the Red Sox worth about $5 million and also have the possibility to earn another $5 million in performance bonuses. The deal was expected to be finalized later Thursday.
The Red Sox also agreed to a one-year contract with outfielder Rocco Baldelli, but clearly the deal with Smoltz is the biggest splash yet for a team that lost to Tampa Bay in the AL championship series and is looking to keep pace with the rival Yankees, who've doled out $423.5 million in contracts to three players after missing the playoffs last season.
Smoltz, the only pitcher in baseball history with 200 wins and 150 saves, had pitched for the Braves since 1988. The 41-year-old is coming off major shoulder surgery that sidelined him for most of last season, but feels healthy enough to pitch at least one more year.
If able to come back, he'll likely join a rotation that already includes Daisuke Matsuzaka (18-3), Jon Lester (16-6), Josh Beckett (12-10) and another newcomer, two-time All-Star Brad Penny. Smoltz prefers to finish his career as a starter.
Smoltz's decision is a startling development given repeated statements that he wanted to spend his entire big-league tenure in Atlanta.
"I've been here for 21 years and I'm going to be here as long as there's a position for me," he said in September.
Smoltz was an unknown minor leaguer when acquired from Detroit in 1987 for Doyle Alexander, but went on to become a cornerstone of Braves' teams that won a record 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005, including a World Series title in 1995. He apparently turned to the Red Sox after Atlanta balked at giving him more than a $3 million deal, the person said.
Braves general manager Frank Wren declined comment when reached by e-mail. Boston general manager Theo Epstein was scheduled to meet with the media later in the day.
Smoltz began his career as a starter, winning 24 games and the NL Cy Young Award in 1996. Numerous elbow problems led him to shift to the bullpen to relieve the stress on his arm, and he set an NL record with 55 saves in his first full season as a closer in 2002.
After three years finishing games for the Braves, Smoltz moved back to the rotation in 2005 and didn't miss a beat, going 14-7 with a 3.06 ERA. He went 47-26 in his second run as a starter, but shoulder pain cut short the 2008 season after only six appearances.
Smoltz tried to pitch one game as a reliever, then underwent surgery to fix what he said were "five or six problems," including his labrum, AC joint and biceps.
While acknowledging that similar operations have end the careers of many others, Smoltz felt encouraged enough about his rehabilitation to begin making plans for the new season. The Braves, however, were reluctant to make a deal with the aging pitcher, especially coming off a dismal season in which they missed the playoffs for the third year in a row.
"I've been written off before and I'm sure this is finally the time when everyone says, 'Finally! This is the end,"' Smoltz said late last season. "But I certainly don't think that."
His departure figures to create a major public-relations problem for a franchise that has fallen on hard times since the longest stretch of postseason appearances in baseball history. Smoltz has a record of 210-147 with 154 saves and a 3.26 ERA, while also becoming the winningest pitcher in postseason history at 15-4.
In addition, he became just the 16th pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts last April in one of his final appearances with the Braves.
Atlanta's only major acquisition of the offseason has been pitcher Javier Vazquez, obtained in a trade with the Chicago White Sox. Wren failed to work out a deal for San Diego ace Jake Peavy and another top pitcher, free agent A.J. Burnett, rebuffed an offer from the Braves to sign with the Yankees.
With Smoltz having departed, the only pitching holdover from the Braves' glory years is 42-year-old Tom Glavine. But he, too, is trying to come back from surgery and it's not known if he'll be healthy enough to pitch in 2009. The left-hander has said he will retire if he doesn't play for Atlanta.
In Thursday's other move, the Red Sox added Baldelli, who spent the majority of last season on the disabled list for the AL champion Rays. The 27-year-old batted .263 with four home runs and 13 RBI in 28 games.