Braves add Saito to rebuilt bullpen

His nickname is Sammy, and he's known to do a solid karaoke version of "Hey Jude."

But for now, the main thing Braves fans want to know about their team's newest relief pitcher, Takashi Saito, is whether the 39-year-old Japanese right-hander can still be a dominant pitcher in the late innings of close games.

Braves officials are convinced the former Dodgers closer will be, and signed Saito to a one-year, $3.2 million contract Thursday. They have him penciled in as primary setup man and backup closer to Billy Wagner, the veteran lefty who signed the day before.

"We've added two guys that will significantly enhance our chances of winning games late," said Braves general manager Frank Wren, the busiest in baseball so far this winter.

In two days, the Braves signed two relievers to one-year contracts worth about $10 million. Between them, Wagner and Saito have 77 years, seven children, 468 saves and 1,389 strikeouts in 1,079 innings. (Saito has three children, all daughters.)

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"When one's not available [to close], the other one can be," said Wren, adding that the Braves could now narrow their focus to the pursuit of a hitter as they prepare for baseball's annual Winter Meetings that start Monday in Indianapolis.

"We've very fortunate to get two outstanding relief pitchers, and we haven't even been to the winter meetings yet," manager Bobby Cox said. "So we are way ahead of the game. Gonzo and Soriano are both free agents, and we needed to fill those spots."

The Braves fully expect to lose 2009 closers Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano to free agency and already replaced them with a combo much older and more accomplished -- and with one fewer recent elbow surgery between them.

Wagner had surgery in 2008, but Saito has not had any major arm problems in four seasons in the majors. He missed time with a sprained elbow in 2008, but didn't require surgery and had no recurrence last season.

Saito, who'll be 40 in February, had a 2.43 ERA in 56 games for Boston with a career-low 52 strikeouts and career-high 25 walks in 55-2/3 innings, mostly middle relief. He made $6 million ($4.5 million of it incentives), and Boston declined a $6 million option.

Before 2009, he had a stingy 1.95 ERA with 81 saves in three seasons with the Dodgers, with 245 strikeouts and 52 walks in 189-2/3 innings. He prefers  the late-inning role, and his Braves contract includes up to $500,000 in additional bonuses for appearances and up to $1.8 million in bonuses for games finished.

"I definitely wanted to be in those kind of pressure situations," he said through an interpreter Thursday at Turner Field. "As a professional athlete I think you always strive for competing at the most important, pressure-filled situation."

He received interest from seven other teams, and Saito got a glowing review from Wagner, a Boston teammate during Wagner's late-season stint with the Red Sox.

"When we visited Billy [in Virginia last week], he couldn't say enough about Takashi," Cox said. "His stuff, his makeup, how he throws the ball, and what a great teammate he is. It helped reinforce to us that what we were thinking about him was right on track."

Saito said, "The Braves organization was one of the first clubs to raise their hand and show some interest towards me, and I'm very grateful for that. ... I've known about the Braves and their winning tradition for a long time, since I played in Japan.

"I also was able to talk to Kenshin. About a week ago we had a TV appearance together, and I asked him a lot of questions. He explained a lot about the Atlanta area, the Braves pitching and the manager. Everything seemed so positive.

"He was also calling me as well, and telling me about the Braves."

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