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Braves will retool for run at 15th title

Braves will retool again, shoot for No. 15

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HOUSTON -- Even with the lights still beaming down on Minute Maid Park, where the Braves' season had just ended with Sunday afternoon's 18-inning loss to the Astros, there's reason to wonder if a 15th consecutive division title is possible.

Both Braves manager Bobby Cox and general manager John Schuerholz are expected to be back to construct and manage the 2006 Braves. Knowing that 18 different rookies helped them capture 14th consecutive division title, many of the faces will be the same.

The biggest offseason decision focuses on Rafael Furcal, who during the season's second half proved to be one of the game's best shortstops and leadoff hitters. His success will make him a hot commodity on the free agent market.

Furcal says he wants to return to Atlanta, and during the Division Series, Cox said that the club will make every effort to keep the speedy shortstop in a Braves uniform.

All indications are that the club will once again have a payroll in the neighborhood of $80-85 million. Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, John Smoltz and Tim Hudson will account for $42 million of the payroll.

With Mike Hampton out for the 2006 season, the Braves will have a significant portion of his salary covered by insurance. The insurable figure will be based on Major League Baseball's records, which indicated the southpaw is owed $13.5 million next year. The Braves have been prorating his salary since acquiring him before the 2003 season.

If the club chooses to keep Jorge Sosa, Johnny Estrada, Horacio Ramirez and Marcus Giles, the combined salaries they'll receive through arbitration should be around $10 million.

While the club is expected to non-tender Dan Kolb, they'll have to decide whether Chris Reitsma will be too expensive via arbitration. With the amount of innings he's worked over the past two seasons, he could cost close to $3 million for next season.

The main priority in the bullpen will be determining whether to keep the services of Kyle Farnsworth, who flourished in the closer's role this season. He earned $1.97 million this year and should command a substantial raise as a free agent.

With the assumption they'll keep Sosa and possibly Ramirez, the Braves should begin the 2006 season with a solid rotation. They'll be joined by Smoltz and Hudson. The club could also choose to pick up John Thomson's $4.75 million option, somewhat of a bargain for a pitcher with eight years of Major League service.

At the same time, the Braves could choose to cut some costs because of their abundance of young starting pitchers. Kyle Davies and Chuck James both should enter camp with a chance to earn a spot in the starting rotation.

The Braves will evaluate Smoltz's shoulder during the offseason, but they don't believe the shoulder stiffness that bothered him during the season's final weeks signifies a major problem. Rest during the offseason should relieve the discomfort he was feeling.

With Andruw Jones, Ryan Langerhans, Jeff Francoeur and Kelly Johnson, the Braves seem to be set in the outfield. Langerhans, Francoeur and Johnson are all coming off impressive rookie seasons.

If the Braves were to lose either Furcal or Giles, they'll have big shoes to fill at their middle infield positions. At the corner infield positions, Chipper Jones and Adam LaRoche will return. There's not as much certainty about 47-year-old Julio Franco, who showed his age toward the end of this season.

With Andy Marte waiting in the wings, there has been speculation the Braves might move Chipper to first base and trade LaRoche. In doing so, they'd be giving up a reliable veteran glove at third base, and at the same time giving up on LaRoche, who many believe can still consistently hit .300 with 20-plus homers every season.

With rookie Brian McCann and a large supply of catchers in their Minor League system, the Braves will have to evaluate what they want to do with Estrada, who was bothered by a bad back for the season's final four months. He could earn close to $2 million through arbitration and at the same time command some interest on the trade market.

It's still October. But with the season complete, it's time for Braves to turn on their hot stoves and begin debating which of these options and the many more that will develop make the most sense.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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