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Cards in the market for offensive upgrades

Cards in the market for offensive upgrades

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ST. LOUIS -- The winter, it seems, is never simple for the Cardinals.

It's never a matter of having a certain number of dollars and one or two holes to fill. It's always a matter of multiple moving parts, this decision affecting that one, with patience and creativity required of the front office.

If you've gotten used to winters like that, you're ready for the 2010-11 offseason for the runners-up in the National League Central, who are free to negotiate with all free agents as of Sunday. John Mozeliak and crew have an intriguing task ahead of them: turning an 86-win team into one that can win 90 or more without extensive turnover. Most of the 2010 Cardinals will be back for '11, barring some extensive trading, since the club has very few free agents. Yet the team needs to get better.

Complicating things even further is this: The biggest decision facing the Cards this winter has to do with a player who is already under contract for 2011. Contract negotiations with Albert Pujols loom in the background of anything and everything that St. Louis will do this offseason. Pujols can be a free agent after '11.

Still, whether Pujols re-ups or not, there's a roster to build. The Cardinals aren't likely to lose much, but that's actually its own kind of challenge. How do you upgrade the offense when every significant player on the season-ending roster looks to be back in 2011?

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Play Free Agent Frenzy

The answer likely is: via trade. The Cardinals will look to free agency for upgrades in a number of areas: the bench, the middle infield, the bullpen and the starting rotation. And they would appear to have somewhere north of $15 million to spend.

But if the players aren't there, it may not make sense to spend the money. It's not a great free-agent class, and aside from starting pitchers, the prizes seem to be in the outfield. That's an area where St. Louis probably won't spend.

Re-signing Jake Westbrook would de-complicate some of it. However, the team's exclusive negotiating window with Westbrook has expired, and he's now free to speak with other teams. That could drive his price up some, and it's safe to reason that the Cardinals are unlikely to get into a heated bidding war, even though they like the righty quite a lot.

If they were to get it done, though, signing Westbrook would create some cost certainty in the pitching staff before the Cardinals begin looking at their offense. St. Louis has often moved quickly to sign (or re-sign) starting pitchers in recent years. A deal with Westbrook would fit right in with that m.o.

But it's the lineup where the real action needs to occur. The St. Louis offense underperformed expectations in 2010, and the club also wasn't as strong defensively as was hoped. Both sides of the ball could benefit from upgrades, whether that be via free agency or trade.

Contract issues
Free agents: Mike MacDougal, RHP; Brad Penny, RHP; Dennys Reyes, LHP; Jake Westbrook, RHP; Jason LaRue, C (has announced his retirement); Pedro Feliz, 3B; Aaron Miles, IF; Randy Winn, OF
Eligible for arbitration: Kyle McClellan, RHP; Brendan Ryan, SS
Player options: None
Club options: Jeff Suppan, RHP
Non-tender possibilities: Realistically, none

Areas of need
Starting pitching: If and when the Cardinals get a deal done with Westbrook, the rotation is pretty much sewn up. But until and unless Westbrook signs, St. Louis has an opening in its starting five. And even if Westbrook re-ups, it's conceivable that the Redbirds could add a sixth starter for depth.

Middle infield: Both Skip Schumaker and Ryan return for 2011, but the club would like to upgrade one of the two positions. It could look at an offensive improvement at short or a defensive upgrade at second.

Third base: Ideally, third won't be an issue at all. The hope is that David Freese will be healthy and ready to go, and can hold up for a full season. However, the smart thing would be to guard against the alternative. St. Louis will probably seek a player to back up Freese, spell him if he's not ready, and fill in at other positions if Freese is fully healthy.

Left-handed relief: Reyes is a free agent, and while Trever Miller is back, that's probably not enough to get you through a full season. Whether it be a specialist, or better yet a pitcher who can go a full inning at a time, this is an area that could use some added depth.

Bench: The Cardinals could use some power off the bench. That would also guard against one of the issues that sank them in the second half in 2010: a lack of lineup depth. When injuries and the Ryan Ludwick-Westbrook trade took some key pieces out of the lineup, the Cardinals didn't have enough bats to step in and fill the void. They'd also like to find a backup catcher who can play more often than LaRue did.

2011 payroll
Having picked up Pujols' option, the Cardinals go into the winter with approximately $80 million committed to nine players. They're probably not liable for a great deal of expenditures via arbitration, but even so, that doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room. The 2011 payroll will likely be somewhere in the general vicinity of $100 million, leaving roughly $18 million available for upgrades. The Cards finished 2009 in the mid-90s.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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