Macon Telegraph: Brighter Days Ahead

Here's The Braves Show's Bill Shanks in the final regular season column of the year in the Macon Telegraph.

There's nothing like a six-game losing streak to finish the year to put a bad taste in your mouth about a baseball season. But perhaps it put the Braves exactly where they were suppose to be.

Remember, this team lost 90 games last season. So maybe to expect the Braves to flip-flop that record and win 90 games this year was a bit much. Maybe an 86-76 record is a much more realistic next step to get this team back to where it wants to be.

"To be honest with you, I think most of us would have taken a ten-game leap over last year's record, but we were fourteen over," Chipper Jones told me Sunday. "You've got to crawl before you can walk. We vaulted ourselves into contention for a playoff spot this year, and now it's important that we go solidify it next year."

The Braves' run started on June 28, on a Sunday afternoon in Atlanta when they beat the Red Sox. They were 52-36 from that day through the rest of the season, and obviously the six-game losing streak last week put a dent in that record. But still, the much-improved play gives all fans hope for next season.

When the Braves started play in August, they had changed half of the starting eight in the lineup since opening day. The changes obviously helped, as an improved offense complimented the best starting rotation in the game.

"It would have been very interesting to see how the team that we finished up with this year would have done had we all been together in April," Jones wondered.

That's something the front office will keep in mind as they tweak the roster this offseason. General Manager Frank Wren will have some interesting decisions to make, but the core that finished up this year could be back.

All indications point to the Braves wanting pending free agent Adam LaRoche back next season. LaRoche was outstanding in his two months with the team, hitting .325 with 12 home runs. But with phenom Freddie Freeman a year or two away, how many years will the Braves offer LaRoche, who could also get a look from the Mets?

The Braves will have to closely watch another phenom, Henry County's Jason Heyward, in the Arizona Fall League later this month. Heyward was voted as the minor league player of the year by Baseball America, and if he does well in the AFL the Braves could pencil him in for right field for 2010.

Even if Heyward is ready, the Braves will still need another right-handed bat, perhaps for left field. And unlike most teams, the Braves will have a luxury that could help fill that need.

Wren can do the math. He's got six players for a rotation that only needs five pitchers. The Braves will more than likely bring Tim Hudson back, which will mean someone else will have to go. If the Braves could find someone to take Derek Lowe's salary off their hands, they'd probably love to get a right-handed bat in return.

The rotation will obviously be a strength again next season. If Hudson does return, he could join Javier Vazquez and either Lowe or Kenshin Kawakami as the veteran leaders. And no team in baseball has a young duo as talented as Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson, who are both only 23-years old.

Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez are both free agents this winter. Soriano will probably be allowed to walk away, although both could be offered arbitration, meaning they could return. Don't be surprised if the Braves pursue Boston lefty reliever Billy Wagner in free agency and go after a solid seventh inning man to compliment Peter Moylan and Eric O'Flaherty.

Don't underestimate the importance of next year being Bobby Cox's last season as manager. The Braves are going to do everything they can to construct a roster that will give Cox a chance to walk out on top. So the 25-man roster we see leave spring training next April could be the strongest we've seen in years.

The goal will be to make another 14-game leap next season, and if the second half of this year is any indication, the Braves could be the most feared team in baseball in 2010.

Join Bill Shanks for sports talk on The Bill Shanks Show, weekdays from 3-6 pm on Fox Sports 1670 AM and online at www.foxsports1670.com.


Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/billshanks.


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