ATLANTA — Tim Hudson agreed to a $28 million, three-year contract with the Atlanta Braves on Thursday, giving the team a wealth of starting pitching and setting up a likely trade to bolster the offense.
Hudson could have returned to the Braves under a $12 million option, but the sides focused on a longer deal after the right-hander showed he had overcome major elbow surgery.
His new deal calls for salaries of $9 million in each of the next three seasons, and the Braves get a $9 million club option for 2013 with a $1 million buyout. If Hudson pitches at least 600 innings over the next three seasons, he would receive a $500,000 bonus after the 2012 season.
The 34-year-old grew up in neighboring Alabama and said all along he was willing to give the Braves a discount to remain close to home. The agreement was reached quickly after the team completed its postseason organizational meetings.
The pitcher said it actually took longer to schedule a physical and set up insurance for the new contract than the actual negotiations.
"I did all I could do to get healthy and show them they could have confidence in me," said Hudson, who returned to start seven games late in the season after missing a full year. "They came to me with an opening offer than was more than fair. They showed me they really wanted to get something done, as did I."
The Braves now have six starters under contract for next season: Hudson, Javier Vazquez, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami.
Jurrjens (14-10, 2.60 ERA) and Hanson (11-4, 2.89), both 23, are the long-term cornerstones of the staff and Vazquez is coming off one of the best seasons (15-10, 2.87) of his career. Vazquez, who is heading into the final year of his contract, might be the most attractive pitcher in a trade since Lowe (15-10, 4.67) and Kawakami (7-12, 3.86) are both in the middle of expensive, long-term deals.
"We felt like the strength of our ballclub was the starting rotation, and we wanted to continue to have that as our strength," general manager Frank Wren said. "Now we have the ability to go out and continue to mold our ballclub. Quite frankly, I don’t know what it’s going to look like on opening day, but it’s starting to take form. This is the first step."
The Braves ranked third in the NL with a 3.57 ERA, while the offense improved after Wren made trades for first baseman Adam LaRoche and center fielder Nate McLouth. But LaRoche is a free agent and the team may be reluctant to sign him to a long-term deal with top prospect Freddie Freeman close to being ready for the big leagues.
The outfield also needs an upgrade. Left fielder Garret Anderson is a free agent and unlikely to return, while Wren must weigh any moves with an eye toward making room for the team’s best prospect, outfielder Jason Heyward, who could make the jump to the big leagues as soon as next season.
Then there’s the bullpen: co-closers Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez have both filed for free agency; the team would like to bring at least one of them back.
"This does give us depth and strength in one area of our club and allows us to have flexibility to do other things now," Wren said. "We’re a work in progress."
Hudson, a former 20-game winner in Oakland, was the ace of the Braves’ staff until he tore up his elbow during the 2008 season. He underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery and was out for a full year.
But he returned at the end of this past season to go 2-1 with a 3.61 ERA in his seven starts, proving to the Braves that his right elbow would be at full strength in 2010.
"I’ll tell you what, man, it feels really, really good," said Hudson, who recently began his offseason conditioning program. "It feels just as normal as my left elbow. I didn’t think I would ever be able to say that."
Hudson, who was part of a rotation in Oakland that included Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, believes the Braves have a chance to be even better with Jurrjens and Hanson leading the way.
"J.J. and Tommy are two of the best young pitchers I’ve seen in a long time," Hudson said. "I’m willing to say this is by far the best staff I’ve been on in my big league career. We have some great pitchers who can go out there and give us a great chance to win every time."
Hudson also looks forward to being around for Bobby Cox’s last season as manager. He has already said that he’ll move into an advisory role with the team after one more year in the dugout.
"He deserves a great season, if not a championship season," Hudson said. "He’s such a pleasure to play for. We’re going to go out there and give it all we’ve got."