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Cardinals unlikely to empty farm for shortstop help

Cardinals unlikely to empty farm for shortstop help

Cardinals unlikely to empty farm for shortstop help

ST. LOUIS -- As the Cardinals seek to upgrade their offense for 2014, general manager John Mozeliak has been clear that shortstop will be his starting point.

It was a position that provided little in the way of offensive production last season, as neither Pete Kozma nor Daniel Descalso proved a desirable permanent fit despite sufficient opportunity to make a case. There is no additional internal answer about to emerge from the farm system, either, which is why the Cardinals are looking for more than a 2014 stopgap.

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They want a long-term answer.

The Cardinals are positioned well to meet that goal, given that they have the two most enviable resources at this time of year. They have financial flexibility as the result of clearing close to $44 million from the books with the departures of five free agents. Too, they have a saturation of young pitching talent, something that will entice potential trade partners.

And it is because of those enviable trade chips that media speculation is swirling about the potential for the Cardinals to go big -- and after Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki.

While the Cardinals are exhausting their shortstop search, there is no indication that they have zeroed in on Tulowitzki. Nor is there confirmation that any of the media-proposed trade packages for Tulowitzki would be either enough for Colorado to listen or even a loss the Cardinals would consider as reasonable.

Rockies owner Dick Monfort has gone on record saying that he has no desire to trade Tulowitzki. Colorado views Tulowitzki as a face of the franchise and part of the core to be built around as he plays out the final seven guaranteed years of his contract. That does not mean the Rockies' position on Tulowitzki cannot change. But it does indicate that changing it would require an overwhelming offer.

The Cardinals have the prospects to make one, but Mozeliak has already expressed some tentativeness in dipping into the organization's depth to address a single need.

"I'm a little hesitant to just go down that path because as we learned this year so quickly, injuries happen," Mozeliak said last week. "And the depth allowed us to have the success that we had this year. And going into 2014, I look at our depth as our strength. By just flipping it to flip may answer a problem that we've identified or a way we could improve, but it would certainly thin us out."

The free-agency route, of course, would allow the Cardinals to simply spend while still retaining their young talent. Stephen Drew, who declined Boston's qualifying offer Monday, is the prize in the shortstop free-agent market this winter. He'll command a substantial salary in a multi-year contract, but he would provide an offensive upgrade for the Cardinals without sacrificing much defensively.

At 30 years old, Drew would bide the Cardinals time as they continue to try to develop a Major League shortstop within their system.

The shortstop options, though, will expand the deeper the trade market is explored. If the Cardinals elect to make a deal in which they trade away young players, they will require an acquisition that is controllable for several years. In other words, Cleveland's Asdrubal Cabrera, who will be a free agent next winter, would not be a match.

But other organizations just might be. Texas is willing to listen to offers on Elvis Andrus, who is signed through 2022 for $124 million. With a trio of young shortstops (Didi Gregorius, Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings ), the D-backs might be willing to talk about dealing one.

And then, of course, there is Tulowitzki. At 29 years old, he is not as young as Andrus or the Arizona three, but he should still be in his playing prime, if healthy. Tulowitzki, a career .295 hitter with a .877 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), would change the dynamic of the Cardinals' lineup by fitting right into the middle of it.

But again, this is a question of cost.

Not so much with his contract -- $130 million in salary through 2020 plus a $15 million club option with a $4 million buyout -- as that is viewed as potentially team-friendly given the expected escalation of contracts in upcoming years. It would only become a financial burden if Tulowitzki continues to be plagued by injury.

The cost would be in prospects and young players who have high ceilings and many remaining years of control.

"We do feel like we do have some assets in our system that could produce some success there as well," Mozeliak said of the trade market. "I think my preference would be not to trade away my players. But certainly I don't want to close any doors today as I sit here. ... For us, it's about trying to keep our core in place, trying to keep our talent in place. But we certainly have to be open-minded if something makes sense."

In Orlando at the GM Meetings this week, Mozeliak should glean a better understanding of the shortstop market and the Cardinals' place in it. And if he wants to seriously explore Tulowitzki as an option, it will provide a setting for exploratory discussions.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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