Interleague looms as bane of Braves' year

ATLANTA - There's an easy way to almost guarantee that the Braves make it back to the playoffs next season after a two-year absence.

All Atlanta has to do is refuse to play any interleague games. A 4-11 record against the American League doomed the Braves this year.

You can't make your own schedule, of course. So Atlanta will have to look elsewhere for solutions.

The Braves improved by five victories and still finished six wins short of making the postseason.

"Injuries kind of killed us," Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur said.

But everything can't be blamed on the loss of starter Mike Hampton, who had also missed the season before, and left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez, acquired in a winter trade.

The lineup looked awesome after Mark Teixeira was obtained on July 31, but the offense still went cold at inopportune times.

Statistically, the offense and the bullpen were good enough for the Braves to still be playing. After longtime ace John Smoltz and 16-game winner Tim Hudson, the rotation wasn't.

"It was a frustrating season," said Smoltz, who won 14 games at age 41 and pitched even better than that.

Smoltz was around for all of the Braves' 14 consecutive division titles. Chipper Jones played in 11 straight postseasons.

"It was definitely disappointing not to make it this year," said the third baseman, who finished second in the National League in hitting. "I thought we had the team to do it."

Last season, general manager John Schuerholz went into the offseason determined to upgrade the bullpen. This year, the emphasis will be on finding another starter or two.

Bobby Cox may manage just one more season. Schuerholz won't be around indefinitely, either. Time is of the essence.

Of course, the loss of Gold Glove center fielder Andruw Jones to free agency means that the Braves will have another hole to fill outside of the rotation.

The Braves can use the money not spent on Jones to try to sign Teixeira, who can become a free agent after next season and is also represented by Scott Boras.

Here are the key questions facing the Braves this offseason:

n Who will play center field?

The Braves are high on prospect Jordan Schafer, but he is just 21 and hasn't played above Class A. San Diego veteran Mike Cameron will be a free agent and he is a Georgian. But he may not be worth more than a one-year deal and he'll want more. One option for the Braves might be moving Jeff Francoeur to center field until Schafer is ready. Rookie Brandon Jones could take over for Francoeur, with Matt Diaz playing regularly in left field.

n Is there a big name free agent starting pitcher out there?

Tom Glavine isn't likely to return to the Mets and the Braves may be interested. Despite his horrid final start, the left-hander did win 13 games and would like to pitch close to home. The 300-game winner, who turns 42 next April, might be a good fit in an incentive-laden deal, but he certainly wouldn't be able to solve the Braves' rotation issues all by himself.

n Who do the Braves have to trade?

Cox loves Edgar Renteria and with good reason. But Yunel Escobar has shown he is ready for everyday duty and his natural position is shortstop, where he can show off his rifle arm. Renteria, who hit .332 and doesn't have an outlandish salary for next year, should be able to bring a decent starting pitcher. The Braves might have to throw in a prospect as well, though.

n Does the bullpen need more help?

Rafael Soriano has the stuff to be a closer and the relievers actually ranked second in the National League behind San Diego in ERA. Peter Moylan was a real find and the Braves have a lot of young arms that could be on the verge of major contributions. The rotation, not the bullpen, is what needs reinforcing.

n Will Hampton be healthy next year?

The Braves sure hope so with all the money they will have to pay him. But he hasn't contributed for two seasons and remains very much a question mark. They can't count on him to be the savior for the rotation.

n Do the Braves have a leadoff hitter?

Not in the traditional sense, but a lot of teams are in the same situation. Escobar and Kelly Johnson both can get on base and each can run, although neither is a real base stealer.

n Will 2008 really be Cox's last year?

He indicated so early last season, but it will be tough for him to leave the dugout. He and Schuerholz are determined to get the Braves back on top before they retire, which is what makes this offseason and next year so important.

"The World Series would be nice," Cox said before adding, "I'm not saying it's my last year."