5. Is Tim Hudson finally back?

Here is the fifth part of our series on the top 35 questions facing the Braves this winter. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks talks about Tim Hudson and his future at the top of the Braves' rotation.

When Tim Hudson was acquired in December of 2004, the hope was that he would one day take over as the Atlanta Braves' ace in a post-Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux era. And while it may have take three seasons to do it, Hudson may be very close to assuming that role.

Hudson's 2007 season was his best as a Brave, with a 16-10 record and a 3.33 ERA. He pitched 224.1 innings, his most since 2003 with the Oakland Athletics. He had 25 quality starts (sixth most in the majors), again the most he's had since that outstanding 2003 season. The impressive campaign gave hope to all of those who believed Hudson would snap out of a three-year funk.

The Braves almost traded Hudson last season to the Orioles in a deal for second baseman Brian Roberts. Thankfully the deal fell apart, but most Braves' fans could have cared less if Hudson had left. He had two mediocre seasons in Atlanta after the trade from Oakland, and a big turnaround was needed before his contract escalated in 2008.

Hudson had tailed off considerably since that 2003 season, when he was 16-7 in 34 starts (27 quality starts) and an ERA of 2.70. He had only 15 quality starts in 2004, 18 in his first year with Atlanta in 2005, and then 14 in 2006.

After Mike Hampton was lost for the season early in the year, the Braves had to have Hudson step up and be that dominant starter once again. He was outstanding in April (3-0, 1.40 ERA, and six quality starts) but struggled a bit in May early-to-mid and June (5-5, 4.26 ERA). But then Hudson had a stretch of eleven games between June 25th and August 20th where he was dominant (9-0, 2.57 ERA).

When Hudson threw a quality start (six or more innings with three or fewer runs allowed), he was practically unhittable. Hudson was 16-4 in his quality starts with an ERA of 1.89. The Braves' bullpen blew three games that Hudson was in line to win.

Part of being an ace is winning when your team needs a win, and Hudson did that in 2007. He pitched sixteen times after an Atlanta loss and the Braves went 13-3. His record in those games: 10-2 with an ERA of 2.43.

So is this just a mirage, or is Hudson back? Braves' fans wanted to see the Tim Hudson we watched dominate the American League all those years in Oakland, and in 2007 he showed it was indeed possible to see that pitcher again.

With John Smoltz getting old, despite his continued solid production, the Braves are going to need Hudson to put himself in position to be the ace pitcher. The older Smoltz gets, the less likely he'll be able to hold onto that role.

In the spring of 2006 Smoltz tried to pass the baton to Hudson, only to see the former Auburn Tiger have his worst season as a professional player. But Hudson rededicated himself last winter and the results were obvious. We've just go to continue to see that, especially with his salary jumping from $8 million to $15 million (including his $2 million dollar signing bonus).

There is little doubt that Hudson has some of the best stuff in the major leagues. This is not a pitcher you want to face if you're an opponant. And this is what every team needs at the top of its rotation.

Hudson has got to feel good about his season, and it's got to inspire him to stay at the top level of the game. If that happens, the Braves will continue to have a tremendous duo at the top of the rotation and a pitcher they can count on when the game is on the line.

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.

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