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Smoltz adds two more years to Brave life

ATLANTA -- John Smoltz was part of some talented starting rotations in Atlanta before becoming the team's closer.

Now he's back as a starter. And with the addition of Tim Hudson on Thursday, the rebuilt Braves rotation may be their best top-to-bottom staff yet.

With Thursday's announcements that Smoltz had signed a new two-year deal and the Braves traded for Hudson, the team already has its five-man rotation set for 2005. According to Braves GM John Schuerholz, it's "the best five starting pitchers we've ever had."

Smoltz and Hudson are both proven aces. Mike Hampton won 13 games last reason, John Thomson had 14 victories and No. 5 starter Horacio Ramirez won 12 in 2003 before shoulder problems limited him to 10 games last year. He's expected to be ready for spring training.

"This winter we have set our sights on going back to sort of the old-fashioned Braves way of building championship teams with dominant pitching," Schuerholz said. "That's what we think we have done and we are excited about the pitching staff we have put together for the season."

The team traded highly touted left-hander Dan Meyer, outfielder Charles Thomas and right-hander Juan Cruz to Oakland for Hudson, one of the top starting pitchers in baseball.

Hudson, from Columbus, Ga., has a 92-39 career record with a 3.30 ERA. Teamed with Smoltz, the two may be the best starting tandem in the NL East.

"It's pretty darn good," Smoltz said of the trade for Hudson. "It's about as good a move to bolster the pitching staff as you can make. We needed someone to come in and strike a little more fear and that's what we've gained. We've gained a little more respect and fear."

Smoltz received a $6 million signing bonus and will be paid $6 million in 2005. He will earn $8 million in 2006, and the Braves have an $8 million club option for 2007.

Smoltz was due to earn $12 million in 2005 and had a bonus clause in his contract to earn $100,000 for each start. As a starter, that contract stipulation could have pushed his 2005 salary to $15 million.

Instead, Smoltz agreed to give up that per-game bonus in exchange for an extra year on his contract.

"That's the most important thing to me," he said. "I love playing here, I love living here. Obviously, I'm going to live here the rest of my life. And it was so important to me that no matter how it got done and what angles and what ways it got done, I was glad that it got done in a fashion where it was a great deal not only for the ballclub but for me."

Smoltz, 37, started his major-league career as a Brave in 1988 and will likely retire as one. Realizing legends such as Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy finished their careers with other teams, and Tom Glavine now pitches for the New York Mets, Smoltz said his opportunity is rare.

"I thought about it on several occasions, like when Dale Murphy was traded," Smoltz said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh!' And it hit home when Glavine didn't stay here, when it didn't work out."

Smoltz is the only Braves player to play on all 13 consecutive division title teams. For much of that time, he was surrounded by Glavine and Greg Maddux, three pitchers with a combined six Cy Young Awards.

Smoltz has a career record of 163-121 with 154 saves. He won 24 games and the NL Cy Young Award in 1996.

"He has been a constant during our string of 13 straight division titles, both with his pitching and his leadership," Schuerholz said.

In a second trade Thursday, the Braves sent outfielder Eli Marrero and cash considerations to the Kansas City Royals for 26-year-old right-handed reliever Jorge Vasquez, who saved 18 games for Double-A Wichita last season. In two appearances with Kansas City, Vasquez gave up three earned runs in 3 1/3 innings.