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Furcal returns to Braves

The Atlanta Braves haven't had a real base-stealing threat or a major catalyst at the top of the order since Rafael Furcal left to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent after the 2005 season.

That's why the Braves are bringing the switch-hitting infielder back.

Furcal agreed to a three-year contract with a vesting option to return to Atlanta after three seasons with the Dodgers. The deal, contingent on Furcal passing a physical, is worth $10 million per season.

The free-agent signing doesn't mean that the Braves are ready to trade shortstop Yunel Escobar or second baseman Kelly Johnson, however.

With a hole in left field, Atlanta is planning to move Johnson there and the team feels that he will have enough power in the lineup if right fielder Jeff Francoeur can bounce back from an off year.

Furcal, 31, is likely to play second base rather than shortstop for the Braves, with Escobar remaining at shortstop. Johnson played the outfield before moving to second base in 2007.

With the lineup addressed, Braves general manager Frank Wren will concentrate on adding another starter pitcher.

Atlanta acquired Javier Vazquez in a November trade with the Chicago White Sox, but failed to land Jake Peavy in a trade with San Diego and lost out in the free-agent bidding for A.J. Burnett to the free-spending New York Yankees.

One of the Braves' options could be veteran Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami, who is a former most valuable player in the Central League. The 33-year-old became a free agent after going 9-5 with a 2.30 ERA last season for the Chunichi Dragons. In addition to Atlanta, Kawakami has draw interest from the New York Mets, Los Angeles Angels, Boston and Baltimore.

Atlanta doesn't know if John Smoltz, a free agent, will be ready at the beginning of next season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Boston has shown interest in Smoltz if he doesn't return to Atlanta.

The Braves had been exploring several possibilities for left field, but decided that the signing of Furcal and the move of Johnson was their best alternative.

Furcal hit .286 with a .348 on-base percentage and 189 stolen bases in his earlier six-year tenure with the Braves. Atlanta hasn't had a player record more than 17 stolen bases in the three seasons since Furcal left. He had 46 steals as a rookie and 40 in his final season with Atlanta.

Furcal hit .357 with the Dodgers last season, but was limited to 37 games and had back surgery in July. He batted .300 and .270 the previous two seasons, with a total of 73 stolen bases.

After making the postseason for 14 consecutive years, the Braves haven't made the playoffs since Furcal left to sign a three-year, $39 million deal with the Dodgers.

Wren has had a busy offseason, although not quite as busy as he had hoped. The Braves acquired left-hander reliever Boone Logan along with Vazquez in the trade with the White Sox and signed David Ross to be the backup for catcher Brian McCann.

In addition to the rotation, center field remains unsettled. Omar Infante, Gregor Blanco and Josh Anderson are possibilities, as is prospect Jordan Schafer. After being suspended for part of last season, Schafer is likely to start 2009 with the Gwinnett Braves, however.

SideBar: Braves Lineup

This is the way the Atlanta Braves' lineup could look for the 2009 season opener at Philadelphia on April 5:

1. Rafael Furcal

2B

2. Yunel Escobar

SS

3. Chipper Jones

3B

4. Brian McCann

C

5. Casey Kotchman 1B

6. Kelly Johnson

LF

7. Jeff Francoeur

RF

8. Omar Infante

CF

9. Jair Jurrjens

P