From an outside perspective, Major League Baseball's offseason can be difficult to understand. Unlike the NBA, NFL and NHL, a salary cap isn't present to handcuff the ability of an organization to retain stars with expiring pacts.
Yet, despite the lack of a unified budget for each team, owners and front office executives have limits for each player during the hot-stove season.
Just two years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals allowed Albert Pujols to walk in free agency when the Los Angeles Angels offered him a contract well in excess of $200 million. Instead of folding the tent, St. Louis handed the first base job to a young player developed through its system named Allen Craig.
Due to Craig's limited service time, his salary was just $495,000 in 2012. With the money allocated to a potential Pujols deal, the Cardinals gave Adam Wainwright a contract extension and signed Carlos Beltran to help fill the power void in the middle of their lineup.
This winter, expect similar decisions to be made all around baseball. When a star leaves in free agency, the door is opened for a young player within the system to become a starter and dollars to be allocated differently throughout the roster.
Here are four top prospects ready to fill the shoes of free agents on the path to departing their 2013 teams.
1. St. Louis Cardinals: Oscar Taveras in, Carlos Beltran out.
If you think St. Louis is going to eschew logic and overpay for Beltran's age-37 season, you haven't been paying attention to the way the Cardinals do business lately.
Despite raking on the national stage in October, Beltran's on-base percentage, slugging, home runs and WAR all slipped considerably from 2012 to 2013. It's hard to imagine St. Louis showing him the door if he was willing to come back at a below-market-value rate, but if the star outfielder is looking for one last lucrative deal, it won't come from the team that has his replacement ready in the minors.
If not for injury, baseball fans would have seen Oscar Taveras in the majors in 2013. As Bleacher Report's MLB Prospects Lead Writer Mike Rosenbaum wrote about the 21-year-old outfielder in September, Taveras will be able to replace Beltran's bat quickly.
Per Rosenbaum: "Taveras has 25-plus-home run potential; lift to swing; ball has carry; extra-base machine. Hits same-side pitching; makes loud contact to all fields; comfortable hitting any pitch in any count."
2. Boston Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. in, Jacoby Ellsbury out.
While Tavares, rated as the No. 3 prospect in baseball by Rosenbaum, is simply too talented to block by re-signing Beltran to another deal, Boston's outfield shuffle will have more to do with philosophy than making the team better in 2014.
As I wrote when pointing out why Ellsbury wouldn't be a smart target for the New York Yankees, Boston's offense with him atop the order was a much more prolific group than it was when he was injured. Although Bradley Jr. projects to be a regular player on a first-division team, he's not going to come close to replacing the 2011 AL MVP runner-up in Ellsbury.
Boston's front office knows this, but don't expect it to suddenly jump back into the business of handing out contracts in excess of seven years or $100 million.
Don't believe me? Listen to what team president Larry Lucchino had to say when appearing as a guest on WEEI in Boston.
“I don’t want to rule out anything, except that there will be a presumption against doing any very long-term deals,” Lucchino said. “I think we’ve crossed that bridge and we realized that there’s a better way to spend money, that free agency and long-term deals are not the best way to build a franchise or to succeed over time. So there is a very strong presumption against that."
3. Atlanta Braves: Christian Bethancourt in, Brian McCann out.
Free agent Brian McCann's impending departure from Atlanta, after nine highly successful seasons, is often tied to the Braves' belief in power-hitting catcher Evan Gattis. While Gattis' breakout 2013 (21 HR, .480 SLG) is reason to shy away from overpaying McCann, it's the presence of another promising young catcher in Atlanta that should keep fans from worrying about their future behind the plate.
When Christian Bethancourt was called up in September, after posting a .741 OPS with Double-A Mississippi, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez raved about his talent to MLB.com's Mark Bowman.
"We think the world of [Bethancourt] defensively," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's had a nice season offensively at Double-A. We'll bring him up here and just let him get some experience."
Between Bethancourt's defense and emerging offense and Gattis' power stick, the Braves are covered when McCann departs.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates: Jameson Taillon in, A.J. Burnett out.
To be fair, the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates' best shot at the franchise's first World Series title since 1979 would be with both Burnett and the 21-year-old Taillon in the rotation. If Pittsburgh could sport a quartet of Francisco Liriano, Burnett, Gerrit Cole and Taillon atop its staff, the NL Central could belong to the Bucs.
Of course, Pittsburgh can if Burnett chooses to stick around for one more season. Unlike St. Louis with Beltran, Boston with Ellsbury or Atlanta with McCann, this isn't a case of dollars and value. After what Burnett became on the mound and in the clubhouse for the Pittsburgh organization, he would be brought back at a fair rate by Pirates management.
Yet, after 15 big league seasons, Burnett is contemplating retirement this offseason. The subject, first brought into the mainstream by Hardball Talk in March, didn't die down as the season progressed for the 94-win Pirates.
After the conclusion of Pittsburgh's division series loss to St. Louis, team president Frank Coonelly made it clear that the team would welcome him back during a conversation with Bill Brink of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“He’s got a decision to make, first and foremost, whether it’s time for him to spend more time with his family or whether he thinks he can go another year,” Coonelly said. “If he decides that he wants to come back, we definitely want A.J. back.”
If Burnett does depart, Taillon, a former first-round pick, will be asked to fill major shoes in the 2014 Pirates rotation. Bleacher Report's Mike Rosenbaum projects him to be a No. 3 starter during his big league career but would likely have to reach that potential almost immediately to fill the void of Burnett.
However, if Burnett does decide to stick around for one more run at a ring in Pittsburgh, Taillon can be eased into a fourth starter role and given the chance to progress at his own pace.
Agree? Disagree? Can these prospects replace the veterans?