Cardinals eye solution in middle infield

Cardinals eye solution in middle infield

ST. LOUIS -- Though some areas of the 2012 Cardinals are set, one unit is very much in flux: the middle infield. The club would love to gain some clarity on that topic in the next few weeks, but it's far from a guarantee that will happen.

Much of the decision making, of course, rests on what happens with free agent Albert Pujols, since his decision will affect how much money the Cardinals have to spend elsewhere. But there's also the simple fact that the market doesn't offer a lot of especially scintillating options this winter.

That's particularly true at second base, and a bit less so at shortstop, a truth which is reflected in the Cards' strategy as they approach filling the two holes. Whereas the club expects to have identified a starting shortstop before Spring Training, it's possible that second base could represent more of a mix-and-match situation in 2012.

Still, both positions are unsettled as the Winter Meetings approach, and that's not ideal. So the Cardinals are checking out their options for what their double-play combo will look like next season.

Ideally, the club would love to have Rafael Furcal back as its shortstop, but the question is price. Furcal has drawn a good bit of interest on the open market, including from the rival Brewers, against whom he had some of his best games this past year.

The price will have to be right for the Cards to pull the trigger with Furcal, who was an impressive addition to the club at the Trade Deadline, but his injury history is daunting. The Cardinals could have an opportunity to match other offers, since Furcal would love to return to the team where he won a ring, but if those offers are too rich, they may elect not to go as far.

Other possibilities include Jimmy Rollins, but only if Pujols signs elsewhere, and Rollins will likely command a very large deal. That's risky for a 33-year-old shortstop who has shown significant offensive decline. On the less-expensive end of the spectrum is a player like Alex Gonzalez, a plus defender who has power but a poor on-base percentage. Recent reports have linked Gonzalez with the Cardinals.

But if the Cardinals are going that route, they might just stay in-house. Tyler Greene has impressive defensive tools (though inconsistent performance), some power and could well end up with an offensive profile similar to (or better than Gonzalez). In a scenario in which Pujols returns, Greene is an option for the Cards at short.

"There is some school of thought to try to give Tyler Greene that opportunity," general manager John Mozeliak said. "So I think we've had some meetings, and we're going to continue to assess over the next couple weeks, but we're not closing any doors either on the free-agent market."

Second base, meanwhile, may be even more wide open. The Cardinals have numerous pieces under their control who could add up to a solution in 2012. Daniel Descalso filled in capably at third base, but he has a bat that may be more suited to second. Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot may be non-tender candidates, but they also offer options at second. Nick Punto could return as well.

Greene does not figure to be a significant option at second, even if the Cardinals mix and match. That could mean he's a trade option if the Cardinals sign a shortstop, or potentially a utility man for the '12 team. He is out of options.

That plethora of choices is good because the free-agent market is thinner. Beyond Kelly Johnson, there's just not much out there. The trade market might yield more compelling opportunities for the Cardinals, as Atlanta may be shopping Martin Prado. But whereas the Cardinals are likely to identify a starting shortstop and go with him, they may be more creative at second. They are rather less likely to move aggressively on a second baseman than on a shortstop, in short.

"That's how we feel," he said.

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.