Cardinals could look to improve infield

Cardinals could look to improve infield

ST. LOUIS -- Now comes the hard part. No, really.

Had the Cardinals agreed to terms with Albert Pujols on a new deal, there wouldn't be a whole lot left for the front office to do. Sure, a few loose ends would need to be tied up, but the bulk of the Cardinals' roster would be more or less set.

Now, with somewhere on the order of $20 million to be reallocated to the 2012 roster if the club so desires, and the need to upgrade a team that has just lost a three-time National League Most Valuable Player, it's time for general manager John Mozeliak and his brain trust to start looking at their other options.

The Cardinals are currently committed to approximately $80 million in 2012 salaries, while arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration players could push that total somewhere between $85 and $90 million (depending on which players are non-tendered). With the Cardinals likely to have a payroll pushing $110 million for '12, that leaves between $20 and $25 million that the Cardinals could, conceivably, spend on upgrades.

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"I assure you we've got our irons in the fire now," Mozeliak said Thursday. "As things get into next week, we'll be active and I think we have a pretty good idea of what we want to see happen now. ... I was looking at it on the airplane and was like, 'Wow.' It does create some flexibility for the organization. We knew that was a possibility, so that's what we'll do. We'll look to redeploy those resources."

It's possible, of course, that they won't spend all of it right away, filling some needs and leaving some flexibility for in-season moves. Still, they'll make some moves. Plenty of options exist, but it will be all but impossible to replace what's lost with Pujols in a single move.

That's because the other big-name first baseman on the market, Prince Fielder, is likely a no-go for the Cardinals. Mozeliak said back in November that he did not intend to pursue Fielder in the event that Pujols went elsewhere. But more fundamentally, it just wouldn't mesh with the way the Cardinals do business. They have long been extremely reluctant to commit to very large contracts to players who are not already in the fold.

Players such as Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, and even Pujols have cashed in on big, long-term deals, but only after the Cardinals saw them up close. The club consistently hesitates to make that kind of commitment to a player it has not already had on the roster.

So the moves will likely come elsewhere. The Cardinals will probably move Lance Berkman to first base. That will open a spot in right field, one which eventually should be filled by Allen Craig. However, Craig is recuperating from knee surgery, and his status for the start of the season is uncertain.

Thus the Cards may well look at outfield options, and one name they've been linked with in some early reports is Carlos Beltran. The switch-hitter is well-known to Cardinals personnel of course. Beltran might well command a significant price, and he's no longer a center fielder. But he is an impact hitter with on-base skills and power.

Likely more urgent, though, is the middle infield. The Cardinals have expressed an interest in bringing back Rafael Furcal, though part of Furcal's interest in returning was another chance to play with Pujols. Still, the Brewers are presumably out of the bidding after agreeing to a deal with Alex Gonzalez.

The Cardinals had expressed a willingness to play Tyler Greene at short, but that was in case Pujols returned. With the slugger gone, it's exceedingly likely they will make a move on a shortstop.

Second base may be a tougher area to upgrade. One of the most compelling options, Kelly Johnson, is no longer on the market after agreeing to arbitration. The Cards have expressed a willingness to mix-and-match at the keystone, and that plan could still be in play.

The one area that has been an obvious need all along has been left-handed relief. The Cardinals have only one lefty reliever on the roster, and they won't go to Spring Training with that configuration. So pitchers such as Mike Gonzalez and George Sherrill could be in play as the winter goes on.

It's most likely that whatever the Cardinals do, it will be through free agency rather than trades. Mozeliak has consistently expressed that he has no desire to trade from the Cardinals' farm system. So while he could make a move from the Major League roster, that might be a hard thing to make work.

"Our preference would be through free agency ... but we will explore some trade opportunities," Mozeliak said.

"We don't have a ton of holes to fill. ... I feel comfortable we can accomplish that."

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.