ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves took another major step toward solidifying their pitching staff for next season, agreeing Wednesday to a $7 million, one-year contract with closer Billy Wagner.
Next up: the offense.
"The bullpen is one of the areas we needed to upgrade to get where we want to go," Braves general manager Frank Wren said during a news conference at Turner Field. "Billy was at the top of our list. The first day of free agency, we gave him a call."
The six-time All-Star gets $6.75 million in 2010, and his deal includes a $6.5 million club option for 2011 with a $250,000 buyout. The option would become guaranteed if he finishes 50 games next season.
The signing of Wagner to replace last year's co-closers, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, was Atlanta's second big move of an already busy offseason. Tim Hudson re-signed to give the Braves six established starters and likely set up a trade to bulk up the offense, possibly at next week's winter meetings.
Wren left little doubt that's his next priority. The Braves are in the market for a power-hitting first baseman or outfielder, maybe even both.
"We knew going into this offseason that we wanted to fix two areas: the bullpen and the offense," Wren said.
The 38-year-old Wagner missed most of last season following elbow ligament replacement surgery on Sept. 10, 2008. The left-hander returned to the New York Mets on Aug. 20, reached 96 mph in his first appearance, then was traded to the Boston Red Sox five days later.
Wagner was 1-1 with a 1.98 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 13 2-3 innings for the Red Sox. In Game 3 of the playoffs against the Angels, he allowed a hit and a walk in the eighth inning, and both runners scored against Jonathan Papelbon as Los Angeles rallied and completed a three-game sweep.
He is sixth on the career list with 385 saves and second among left-handers behind John Franco (424).
Calling himself a lifelong Braves fan who grew up watching the team on TBS, Wagner said it's always been his goal to pitch for Atlanta. The deal came together quickly after Wren, manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell flew to Wagner's rural Virginia home to make their pitch in person.
"I grew up loving Dale Murphy. I remember Bob Horner hitting four home runs in a game," Wagner said. "They have such a great tradition of winning and competing and great guys. I wanted to be a part of that. I'm excited about the opportunity. They'll get the best I have to offer."
Soriano (27 saves) and Gonzalez (10 saves) shared the closing duties last season, but both became free agents and now surely will sign elsewhere. The Braves immediately targeted Wagner, considering him a better option than either of the incumbents.
Wren pointed to Wagner's 86 percent success rate at converting saves over his career.
"Anything over 80 percent is really good," the GM said. "He's got everything you want your closer to be. He's fearless. He's got quality stuff. Even when you consider the job those two guys did for us last year, we had Billy ranked higher."
Wagner said his arm feels better than it has in years.
"I never had any discomfort. I never felt like I had to back off," he said. "If I had known it was going to work out this well, I would have had Tommy John (surgery) five years ago."
Because Wagner was ranked a Type A free agent and the Red Sox offered salary arbitration on Tuesday, Boston will receive two extra picks in June's amateur draft as compensation.
But the Braves are counting on getting extra picks for Soriano and Gonzalez, who have until Monday to accept arbitration but are expected to turn it down to pursue multiyear deals with other teams.
Atlanta declined to offer arbitration to first baseman Adam LaRoche or outfielder Garret Anderson. There's still a chance that LaRoche might return to Braves, who acquired him from Boston just before the trade deadline for his second stint with the team.
He was one of the team's best offensive players down the stretch, hitting .325 with 12 homers and 40 RBIs in 57 games.
"We prefer that it be our decision" on whether to pursue a new contract with LaRoche, Wren said. "By offering arbitration, you're giving that decision over to the player."
If nothing else, the re-signing of Hudson and signing of Wagner shows the Braves are serious about sending Cox out a winner in his final season as manager. Last season, the one-time NL powerhouse made a run at its first playoff berth since 2005 before a dismal final week ended those hopes.
"Guys realize how close we are to winning," Wren said. "That's helping us lure guys here again."