ATLANTA – The belt hangs in Tim Hudson’s locker in the Braves clubhouse, black leather with silver adornments, a WWE-style trophy proclaiming its owner the A.B.F.L. (Atlanta Braves Football League) Heavyweight Champion.
It’s a title Hudson has held onto the last two years as the winner of team’s fantasy football league, but his streak and his season ended with a loss to closer Craig Kimbrel in the third-place game.
Hudson’s reign may be over but another title has been bestowed upon him. With the retirement of Chipper Jones, the 37-year-old is now the senior-most player on the Braves’ roster.
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“Yeah, it’s kind of funny, I’m the oldest guy on the team now,” Hudson said. “I still feel like I’m one of the guys. I’m young at heart even though I’m a little long in the tooth. I still feel like I can go out there and hang with the young guys even though I’m not a young guy anymore.”
With 14 major-league seasons under his belt, including eight in Atlanta, Hudson has become one of the team’s unquestioned leaders.
“He jokes around, he’s fun,” Kimbrel said, “but when it’s time to get on the field, when it’s time to play, he’s the biggest competitor we have in the clubhouse. It’s just leading by example. He’s got that loose feel . . . you don’t have to be uptight all the time but when it’s time to go, it’s time to go out there and do your job and I feel like that’s a great mentality to have.”
Added reliever Jonny Venters: “He knows what it’s like to be on a winning team . . . it really comes natural to him, the way he leads by example. He’s pretty special.”
Hudson is coming off a season in which he left little doubt whether he can still be special on the mound as well.
He bounced back from offseason back surgery to go 16-7 — the eighth time in his career he has won at least 15 games and the third straight — with a 3.62 ERA in 28 starts in 2012.
That’s because Hudson continues to do what Hudson does.
While he has never been a strikeout machine — just three times in his career has he had more than 162 Ks — he’s still one of the game’s premier groundball pitchers, posting a 55.5 groundball rate last year, which ranked seventh in the majors and fourth in the National League.
As Braves.com’s Mark Bowman pointed out, over the past six seasons only Matt Cain, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Adam Wainwright boast better ERAs than Hudson’s 3.24 with at least 150 starts. He’s gone 105-65 with the Braves, averaging a 3.52 ERA, with just one year in which he’s posted an ERA over 4.0.
Still, for his consistencies, there are questions surrounding what’s a critical year in Hudson’s career.
He’ll be 38 in July and a free agent after the Braves exercised the $9 million club option on Hudson for this season.
Plus, last season his fastball averaged 89 miles per hour, the lowest of his career. He countered it by throwing his slider 20.6 percent of the time, his highest rate ever and one that has increased in each of the last three seasons (14.6 in ’10; 19.9 in ’11).
But Hudson isn’t thinking ahead or approaching this season any differently with an uncertain future ahead of him. Instead he’s focusing on his place as a front-line starter in a staff that includes Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, Paul Maholm and a No. 5 spot that should be the most-watched battle of the spring.
“I just go about my business all the same,” he said. “I prepare myself every offseason to go out there and try and do the best I can and give the team a good chance to win whether it’s a contract year or not. Nobody expects more out of me than myself. This year is going to be no different than any other one.”
Hudson, who was traded to the Braves in 2005 after spending six seasons with the Athletics, has been heavily involved in the Atlanta community. He and wife Kim launched the Hudson Family Foundation in ’09, its mission to impact “the lives of children who have a genuine need for assistance with regard to a specific physical, emotional or financial circumstance.”
He and his family are tied to Atlanta and Hudson says this is where he wants to end his career.
“It would be tough to play someplace else,” he said. “But you have to understand this is a business and we have some really good young arms coming up in this organization, and if I feel like I’m still on top of my game and healthy, I obviously feel like I can give this organization hopefully a few more good years of time on the mound.”
He may no longer be the Braves’ fantasy football champion, but Hudson may not have to worry about seeing that belt in someone else’s locker, either. The current champion, shortstop Jack Wilson, retired after last season.
“I’m not sending it to him,” Hudson said, laughing.