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Braves begin life without Bobby Cox as manager

Bobby Cox strolled into the Atlanta Braves clubhouse around lunchtime Tuesday with that familiar waddle, only this time he was wearing his new uniform: A blue golf shirt and slacks.

The duds of retirement.

"Are y'all still here?" he jokingly yelled toward the handful of players who had returned to clean out their lockers, not even 24 hours removed from a season-ending loss in the NL division series.

On the first day of the rest of his life, Cox still had plenty of loose ends to tie up. First up was a meeting with general manager Frank Wren, probably to start graphing out his new consulting role with the organization. At some point, he'll have to pack up his office to make room for the next guy.

As strange as it seems, someone besides ol' No. 6 will be occupying that spot next season — and all signs pointed to former Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez.

"It's still hard to believe he's not going to be the manager come spring training," Chipper Jones said of Cox.

Wren made it clear he's already got a timeframe in mind to name Cox's successor. Gonzalez has seemed the most obvious choice since he was fired in June after 3½ years as the Marlins manager, having posted a respectable record of 276-279 with one of baseball's lower-payroll teams but apparently running afoul of owner Jeffrey Loria for benching star shortstop Hanley Ramirez for a lack of hustle.

Gonzalez was a minor league manager in the Braves organization and did an apprenticeship as Cox's third-base coach from 2003-06. He still lives in suburban Atlanta, remained tight with Cox and frequently turned up at Turner Field after being dumped by the Marlins.

The Braves are likely to act quickly — Wren, after all, has known for more than a year that this would be Cox's final season.

Several media outlets reported that Atlanta will announce Gonzalez as its choice Thursday, one day after Cox holds a farewell news conference. The Braves had no comment on the reports, but Gonzalez would be a popular choice in the clubhouse and ensure a fairly smooth transition from a guy who's been managing the team since 1990.

Major League Baseball discourages major announcements from being made during the postseason, unless they are scheduled between rounds. The last division series game was being played Tuesday night and the AL championship series doesn't begin until Friday.

Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens said he hopes the next manager is in the same mold as Cox, who didn't ask much of his players beyond working hard and showing up on time. If they followed those two simple rules (and abided by a couple of other minor pet peeves: No loud music or using cell phones in the clubhouse), they knew Cox had their back.

"When you come in here now, you know what kind of rules you have," Jurrjens said. "You hope it's not going to be different, just the same type of guy, someone who lets us do our thing and have fun. I don't want a sergeant to come in here with a bunch of rules."

Cox's successor will inherit a team that has one of baseball's best pitching staffs.

The rotation is in good hands with 17-game winner Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson and Jurrjens. Even though closer Billy Wagner is retiring along with Cox, a trio of promising rookies emerged this season: Jonny Venters (1.95 ERA, 93 strikeouts in 83 innings), Craig Kimbrel (0.44 ERA, 40 Ks in 20 2-3 innings) and Mike Dunn (1.89 ERA). Throw in ground-ball specialist Peter Moylan and the bullpen looks in good hands.

"It's been the strength of our club," Wren said. "Pitching is the hardest thing to get, and we have it."

Other than hiring a new manager, the top priority for the offseason is clear: The Braves desperately need a power-hitting outfielder — preferably right-handed — to bolster a lineup that was shaky at best and had no chance after season-ending injuries to Jones and All-Star infielder Martin Prado.

Atlanta batted .175 and scored only nine runs in its four-game loss to San Francisco in the playoffs.

Jones, who had considered retiring, changed his mind after going down with a knee injury. He hopes to be at close to full strength by the start of spring training and would presumably reclaim third base. That would send Prado back to second and free up Omar Infante, perhaps the team's biggest surprise, to go wherever he's needed.

Infante wound up third in the NL in hitting (.321) and can play six positions. He even threw out the possibility of moving to center field, a weak spot for the Braves ever since they parted ways with Andruw Jones.

Freddie Freeman is set to take over at first base after getting a brief taste of the majors this season. The Braves hope he can have the impact of this year's rookie star, Jason Heyward, who earned the starting job in right field at age 20 and showed he was worthy of it (.277, 18 HRs, 72 RBIs).

Assuming the Braves pick up a club option on shortstop Alex Gonzalez, the lineup could look a whole lot better in 2011 with one more big bopper in the middle of it.

As for Cox, he will remain a part of the organization in a consulting role that is largely his to carve out. For instance, when the team's top officials meet in Florida next week to start laying out their plans and priorities for next season, Cox is welcome to come along.

"Quite frankly, we want him to be as involved as he wants to be," Wren said.

Just no spikes when he's hanging out in the executive suite.

"That wouldn't be good for the hardwood floors," Wren quipped.

The unique bond between Cox and his players was there even on the first day of retirement.

Brooks Conrad, whose three errors in Game 3 helped shorten Cox's final season, ran into his now ex-manager in a hallway. They hugged and Conrad asked if Cox planned to be at Turner Field on Wednesday. Cox said he would be.

"Would you mind signing a few things for me?" Conrad asked.

"I'll sign anything you want," Cox said with a smile.