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Braves pack up and look towards 2010

Braves pack up and look towards 2010

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ATLANTA -- Turner Field was primarily quiet on Monday morning. Rookie reliever Kris Medlen came in to pack up a few more belongings and Braves manager Bobby Cox once again provided reason to wonder if he truly will be able to comfortably walk away from the game and into his retirement life at the conclusion of the 2010 season.

As he ended a discussion with some media members, Cox playfully suggested that the group should arrange to board a private jet and travel to Minneapolis on Tuesday to watch the Tigers and Twins battle to determine who grabs the American League's final playoff spot as the AL Central champs.

While guiding the Braves to 14 consecutive division titles, Cox obviously never lost the passion to be amid the excitement that the Tigers, Twins and this year's other seven postseason participants will experience this week.

It's been four years since the Braves ended their annual runs into the playoffs. But based on the great strides the club made over the course of this past season, veteran third baseman Chipper Jones has already said there will be a definite sense of disappointment if Cox doesn't experience one more postseason before retiring at the conclusion of next season.

"I think everybody is excited and looking forward to next spring because we have a lot to look forward to," Jones said. "I think next year this club can honestly look itself in the mirror and say that if we don't make the playoffs, it will be a very disappointing season. That's something we haven't seen here in a while."

The optimism centers around the fact that the Braves saw their starting pitchers lead the Majors with a 3.52 ERA. This was a product of the impressive rotation-reconstruction process that general manager Frank Wren constructed after entering last year's offseason knowing that Jair Jurrjens was the only definite holdover.

"I feel like we're a lot closer than we were a year ago," Wren said. "We're not where we want to be. But we're a lot closer and in a position with some more key additions, to be where we want to be, which is in the postseason."

Now instead of trying to find the likes of Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami, Wren finds himself wondering if he needs to actually subtract from a stable that includes six legitimate Major League starters.

Over the next couple of weeks, the Braves will decide what to do with Tim Hudson, who has said that he's willing to sign a contract extension that would include an average annual salary that is less than the $12 million option that he has for the 2010 season.

In order to retain the financial flexibility to keep the club's rotation strong and also address the needs at first base, outfield and the back end of the bullpen, Wren is expected to explore the possibility of trading Lowe, who is owed $45 million over the final three years of his contract.

"It's an obvious position of strength and when you're looking to improve your club, you're looking at where you can improve it at the expense of some other area," Wren said. "We'll see when we come out of our planning meetings what we feel is most appropriate."

Cox, who will join Wren and the club's other top scouts and administrators in Orlando next week for the planning meetings, certainly doesn't buy into the possibility that the team could opt to trade Vazquez, who went 15-10 with a 2.87 ERA and notched 238 strikeouts in his first season with the Braves this year.

"I haven't ever thought about trading him," Cox said. "I know we've got him for one more year. You'd have to get an awful lot."

While Jason Heyward, widely regarded as a top prospect, may be ready for the Majors at some point next year, the Braves may explore the possibility of gaining a power-hitting outfielder via trade or free agency.

After being traded by the Red Sox on July 31, Adam LaRoche returned to Atlanta and spent the season's final two months serving as Cox's primary power source. But while hitting .325 with 12 homers and 40 RBIs during this 57-game stretch, LaRoche may have become too expensive for the Braves.

This obviously wouldn't sit too well with Jones, who has spent the past couple of weeks campaigning for LaRoche's return.

"Obviously we don't have a first baseman for next year," Jones said. "Having Adam LaRoche in our camp would be a huge feather in our cap going into Spring Training. I'd love to have him back."

Along with LaRoche, Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano will also enter the free-agent market this year and leave the Braves looking for a closer. Because they are both Type-A free agents, Gonzalez and Soriano might find some hesitancy from potential employers who are unwilling to sign them and lose a first-round Draft pick.

Having found success when he put the likes of Greg McMichael and Mike Stanton in the closer role, Cox isn't as concerned about this year's pitching needs as he was last year, when his club didn't have anything remotely close to the rotation that created so much optimism this year.

"You have to be excited about where this team came from the last couple months of the season and where it's heading in the future," Hudson said. "That's exciting. There's a lot of good young talent here and a lot of good young pitching here. I think it's only going to get better."

It remains to be seen whether Hudson will still be around to enjoy the prolonged progress the Braves are seeking next year.

Wren's offseason won't be as hectic as last year. But in order to complete what was started this year, he'll still have to make a few key decisions over the course of the next few weeks and months.

"We feel like we're on the right track," Wren said. "We improved 14 games in the standings. That's a lot in one season and realistically, I think we all feel like we could have done more."

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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