Braves’ Hudson has the option to walk away

Other than Angels right-hander John Lackey, the upcoming free-agent class is largely devoid of top-of-the-rotation starters.

Another right-hander, however, could give the list more sizzle.

Tim Hudson, come on down.

It has been widely and accurately reported that the Braves hold a $12 million club option on Hudson for 2010. But the option actually is a mutual option, and Hudson can decline his end of the deal and become a free agent even if the Braves decide they want him back.

Hudson, 34, likes Atlanta, and his first choice might be to sign another contract extension with the Braves. He opted for his current four-year, $47 million deal on March 3, 2005 rather than free agency at the end of that season.

The lack of top-of-the-rotation types in this off-season’s class — combined with Hudson’s near-certain status as a non-compensation free agent — could make him more tempted to test the market this time.

After Lackey, the top free-agent starters probably will be Cubs right-hander Rich Harden, Dodgers lefty Randy Wolf, Tigers lefty Jarrod Washburn, Rockies righty Jason Marquis, Diamondbacks lefty Doug Davis and Dodgers righty Jon Garland.

Veterans such as Phillies right-hander Pedro Martinez, Cardinals righty John Smoltz and Giants righty Brad Penny also will be back on the market.

Hudson has made two starts since returning from Tommy John surgery, facing the Marlins on the road and the Reds at home, going 1-0 with a 2.19 ERA. Prior to that, he had not pitched for the Braves since July 23, 2008.

His long period of inactivity virtually ensures that he would be a free agent without compensation. Teams could sign him without losing a top draft pick, increasing his appeal.

Lackey, by contrast, projects as a Type A free agent; any team that signs him will forfeit a top draft pick. That added price — plus the fact that Lackey has been on the disabled list with arm trouble in each of the past two seasons — could inhibit his market.

Hudson obviously must prove that he is healthy to generate legitimate free-agent interest, but the early signs are good. In 12 1/3 innings, he has allowed 10 hits, striking out 11 and walking four.

His fastball velocity is 89.9 mph, a tick below where he was in 2007 and ’08, according to PitchFx. Though the sample size is small, he is throwing his fastball much less, making greater use of his changeup, curveball, sinker and cutter. Next season — his second after surgery — he only should be stronger.

The Braves still could build a strong, all-right-handed rotation if they lost Hudson. They control Javier Vazquez through next season, Kenshin Kawakami through 2011, Derek Lowe through ’12, Jair Jurrjens through ’13 and Tommy Hanson through ’14.

Another option for the Braves would be to keep Hudson and trade Vazquez for a hitter. Vazquez, 12th in the National League with a 3.06 ERA, can be sent without his permission to any team in the eastern and central divisions of both leagues.