The unthinkable downward spiral continues at Turner Field, where the Braves failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row and lost 90 games for the first time since 1990.
A major factor in the Braves' collapse was injuries, particularly to their starting rotation: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton all spent significant time on the disabled list, which put the Braves on the road to a 4.46 ERA, 12th in the National League and second-worst in the East.
Rebuilding the starting rotation is a must, especially as Tim Hudson (who had Tommy John surgery in August) enters the final guaranteed year of his contract, while Smoltz's agent has hinted in published reports that the right-hander may land elsewhere in 2009.
There's also a pressing need for a power-hitting outfielder, although general manager Frank Wren has made it clear he's not trading blue-chip prospects for an established star. Free-agency solutions are likely beyond the Braves' reach, too, which means they have no realistic chance at signing Manny Ramirez.
Hard to imagine Smoltz moving on, but he's technically a free man now that his $12 million option with the Braves for 2009 didn't vest.
It remains to be seen to what degree the Braves will reinvest with Smoltz, and whether he would return as a starter or reliever. There's similar uncertainty about whether Glavine will return, or if he'll even pitch again after elbow and shoulder surgery in September.
There's plenty of up-and-coming talent that could be used to snare a frontline starter like Jake Peavy. But Wren has ruled out that option, leaving him with few other high-impact choices. The best assets are either too precious to move (Brian McCann) or are currently undervalued (Jeff Francoeur).
Everyone is interested in Tommy Hanson, a 6-foot-6 right-hander who struck out 163 in 138 innings in Single-A and Double-A last year; his stock got a big boost after he struck out seven in three shutout innings in the recent Rising Stars game in the Arizona Fall League. The Braves figure to promote Hanson at some point in 2009.
The Braves can at least be happy in their role as spoilers, beating the Mets four of six games in September and hastening their rivals' doom. But Atlanta still has far to go in closing the talent gap in the East.
Nothing is impossible -- look at the Rays' sudden ascension to greatness -- but in all likelihood, the Braves will have to wait until 2010 and beyond to be a factor again in the East.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.