ATLANTA — The Braves packed up their lockers, exchanged phone numbers and started looking ahead to next season with a lot more hope than they had a year ago.
Sure, the final week of the regular season was downright awful, and there's no denying the disappointment of having to watch the playoffs on television for the fourth year in a row. But, even with a season-worst six-game losing streak leaving a bad taste at the end, Atlanta still made a 14-win improvement over 2008.
That's certainly a good start on getting back to the postseason.
"We've got a lot to look forward to," Chipper Jones said. "If we don't make the playoffs next year, it's going to be a really disappointing season."
Atlanta made a run at the playoffs this year, winning 15 of 17 to climb within two games of the wild-card lead with six to go. Then, just like that, it was over.
Two disheartening losses to Florida — one that ended when Matt Diaz, the potential tying run, was picked off third base — combined with three straight Colorado wins to eliminate the Braves before they even took the field for a season-ending series against Washington.
Atlanta then lost its final four games to the team with the worst record in baseball and slipped to third in the NL East, seven games behind division champion Philadelphia and one back of second-place Florida.
"We just didn't play well the last four games of the year," Jones said. "We had expended a lot of energy getting to that point."
The Braves have turned back the clock to the days of Maddux and Smoltz by assembling one of baseball's top rotations, led by a pair of 23-year-olds, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson.
Jurrjens went 14-10 and might have been a 20-game winner with a little more run support. His ERA of 2.60 was third best in the National League. Hanson started the year at Triple-A Gwinnett as a highly touted prospect, then had the added burden of being the guy the Braves called up when released 43-year-old Tom Glavine. The move could have been handled more delicately, but the choice of Hanson was clearly the right one: He went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts.
Throw in Javier Vazquez, who went 15-10 with the NL's sixth-best ERA (2.87) and second-most strikeouts (238 in 219 1-3 innings), and the Braves have quite a 1-2-3 punch. That doesn't even include their highest-paid starter, Derek Lowe, who was supposed to the ace (he did go 15-10) but struggled down the stretch to finish with a 4.67 ERA. The Braves also have Kenshin Kawakami (7-12, 3.86) and Tim Hudson, who returned to start seven games after missing a year recovering from elbow surgery.
"I feel good because we've got, really, depending on what we do with Tim, six starters," manager Bobby Cox said. "Most teams don't have that."
Hudson has a $12 million mutual option for 2010, which he'd love to exercise, but the Braves are unlikely to spend that kind of money at a spot where they already have plenty of depth.
Look for that money to go toward keeping the bullpen together and further bolstering an offense that struggled much of the year.
Rafael Soriano (27 saves) and Mike Gonzalez (10 saves) are both eligible for free agency, and the Braves would love to keep at least one of them around — probably their only hope. They also have sidearmer Peter Moylan, who set a franchise record with 87 appearances and didn't allow a homer all season.
Gonzalez sounds as though he wants to pitch for a team where he knows he'll be the full-time closer.
"Obviously I want to be with a team where I know I can win," he said. "Also, what I'm going to be used as. I know what I'm capable of doing. All I can ask for is an opportunity."
The offense improved after general manager Frank Wren made trades for center fielder Nate McLouth and slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche. The Braves wound up fourth in the NL in hitting (.263) and sixth in runs (4.5 a game), even with Jones having one of his worst seasons — .264 with 18 homers and 71 RBIs.
But LaRoche can become a free agent and 37-year-old Garret Anderson might be one-and-done in Atlanta after serving as a useful stopgap in left field.
The Braves have a couple of top prospects — outfielder Jason Heyward and first baseman Freddie Freeman — but they are unlikely to be ready at the start of 2010. Wren will have walk a delicate line, keeping together a competitive lineup while not tying up a lot of money at positions that could soon be filled by Heyward and Freeman.
Atlanta has another big issue looming over 2010: the farewell of longtime manager Bobby Cox.
Late in the season, the team announced that Cox — Atlanta's manager since 1990 — would manage one more season before fading into an advisory role. The Braves would love to send him out a winner.
"That's always extra motivation whenever you have someone who's so important to you," Jones said. "Guys should come into camp rarin' and ready to go."