Do the Braves actually think they can compete without a proven shortstop? Alex Gonzalez's contributions were underrated.
-- Bob S., East Petersburg, Pa.

The Braves certainly appreciated the veteran contributions Gonzalez made, and they obviously understand Tyler Pastornicky will experience some growing pains as he assumes Gonzalez's role as the starting shortstop. Like so many other decisions made in professional sports, this was one where finances trumped ability.

Gonzalez did not get the two-year guaranteed deal he was seeking on the free-agent market. But with a one-year, $4.25 million contract that includes an attainable option for 2013, the Brewers certainly provided more than the Braves were willing or capable of providing.

Back in November, Braves general manager Frank Wren said he was not going to provide a multiyear deal to a shortstop with Pastornicky and Andrelton Simmons, one of the game's top prospects, waiting in the wings. This made sense. But as time has passed, it has become more clear how little financial flexibility Wren had this winter.

When Jack Wilson was signed to serve as Pastornicky's backup last week, Wren said the delay in re-signing Wilson was a product of the fact many of his trade discussions with other clubs included either a starting shortstop or backup shortstop.

By trading either Martin Prado or Jair Jurrjens, the Braves would have taken approximately $5 million off their payroll and had the flexibility to add a more experienced shortstop. But Wren was never presented a trade offer that confidently gave him reason to believe it would improve the team as a whole.

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So the Braves will enter this year with a starting shortstop whose Major League experience is limited to sitting on the bench during the final game of last year's regular season.

In a perfect world, Pastornicky would have been given at least a few more months to develop at the Minor League level. But the baseball world is far from a perfect one. Like most others, it is one heavily dictated by finances.

What is the likelihood the Braves sign a top-flight free-agent outfielder if they choose to let Michael Bourn go after the season? I do not think they should trade Prado. I see him as Chipper Jones' successor at third base. What do you think?
-- Josh G., Griffin, Ga.

Teams have to project beyond the current year, and dedicated fans are always trying to get a sense of what their team might look like in the future. But the answers to these questions will be heavily influenced by what transpires this year.

We know the Braves will have the resources to be active next winter, and we know that Josh Hamilton, Shane Victorino, Bourn and a few more talented outfielders will be part of an attractive free-agent market. Right now, it's easy to guess that the Braves will actively pursue at least one of these outfielders.

But what if Jason Heyward rebounds in an impressive manner this year, or a prospect such as Todd Cunningham or Matt Lipka provides indication that they could be ready for the Majors within a year or two? These variables will certainly influence the aggressiveness the Braves show on the free-agent market.

Now that it appears he will not be traded, Prado will return for at least one more year to serve as the starting left fielder and Jones' primary backup at third base. Over the past few years, there was speculation he would be the veteran third baseman's successor at the hot corner.

But Prado's future with the club will be dictated by how he performs on the field this year. There has already been some debate about whether he will be worth the $7 million salary he could gain as an arbitration-eligible player in 2013. He will have to give the Braves confidence he is indeed a valuable everyday player before anybody should guarantee whether the team would be comfortable enough to pay this salary.

Who will serve as Bourn's backup? Is Jose Constanza a candidate?
-- Josh E., Charleston, S.C.

Constanza seems to be the most likely backup option. The fleet-footed outfielder is certainly capable of handling the position and the lineup's leadoff spot occasionally. Another potential backup center fielder is non-roster invitee Luis Durango, who combined to hit .257 with a .344 on-base percentage and 28 stolen bases for two Pacific Coast League teams last year.

Bourn has played 157 games in two of the last three seasons and at least 138 in each of the past four seasons. He has remained relatively healthy while playing a physically taxing position. The Braves can only hope this remains the case for at least one more year.

With Joe Terdoslavich being groomed for third base and Simmons and Pastornicky the top shortstop prospects, what does the future hold for Edward Salcedo?
-- Darrell K., Athens, Ga.

Each of these guys are just prospects, which means they are just suspects until they prove themselves at the Major League level. Terdoslavich and Simmons are currently getting more widespread attention because they are coming off very impressive seasons.

Now they will have to prepare for what is often a telling jump to the Double-A level. Both are extremely talented. You know, kind of like Wilson Betemit and Andy Marte were at this point of their careers. In other words, they haven't proven anything yet.

While the 23-year-old Terdoslavich and 22-year-old Simmons were honing their skills at the collegiate level, the 20-year-old Salcedo was stuck playing in his native Dominican Republic. Once he was able to prove his age, the Braves gave him a $1.6 million signing bonus.

Salcedo's first two professional seasons have not lived up to the tremendous expectations created by the bonus. But this kid still has a bright future, and like every other prospect, the challenge of proving his talents should no longer be considered suspect.