Cardinals could look much the same in 2012

2011-11-13T00:15:00Z 2011-11-28T10:14:05Z Cardinals could look much the same in 2012BY JOE STRAUSS • > 314-340-8371

A year after carrying out a plan to enhance team chemistry and offense, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has charted a different course this winter, regardless of who succeeds Tony La Russa as manager and irrespective of whether free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols returns.

"We sided with offense over defense last winter," he said, "and there may be a correction to some degree this time around."

The Cardinals hope to name a manager soon, perhaps by Monday, and may re-engage Pujols in contract talks during this week's general managers' meetings in Milwaukee. Though Pujols is not expected to decide his future until next month, Mozeliak already envisions the team closely resembling the 90-win edition that drove through October to a World Series title.

Now in his fifth year as general manager, Mozeliak sees answers where some might assume questions.

"I don't think our other needs are necessarily dependent on what Albert decides," he said. "I like what we have coming back. I don't see a need to change the team's core."

Mozeliak moved quickly last November to acquire Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Ryan Theriot and free agent lefthanded reliever Brian Tallet, then acquired free agent right fielder Lance Berkman on the eve of the winter meetings.

The club signed its own free agent starting pitcher, Jake Westbrook, to a two-year extension during the general managers' meetings in Orlando. It was during those meetings the organization decided against making center fielder Colby Rasmus available for trade during a week in which the Atlanta Braves acquired second baseman Dan Uggla from the Florida Marlins, an organization that intended to draft Rasmus had the Cardinals passed on him 2005.

Mozeliak expects less heavy lifting this winter regardless of Pujols' decision.

"It's fair to say we're certainly a stronger team with Albert than without him. But sitting here today, I can see how this team is positioned to be very competitive next season with the players we have in place," Mozeliak said. "I do think we can work to make our defense better. I'm very confident our pitching will be better."

Pujols' return is considered Plan A. If the three-time NL Most Valuable Player ultimately signs elsewhere, the Cardinals are prepared to transfer Berkman to first base and anoint Allen Craig starting right fielder.

Mozeliak says he has no plans to tinker with a rotation that regains 2010 NL Cy Young Award runner-up Adam Wainwright and has five members under contract through next season. "As of now, I don't see that as an area of need," Mozeliak said.

Acquiring a second lefthanded reliever to complement Marc Rzepczynski and clarifying a vague situation at shortstop are more pressing.

Mozeliak projects Daniel Descalso as next season's starting second baseman with incumbent Skip Schumaker ticketed for a 'super utility" role should the club avoid arbitration. The plan may leave Theriot, last season's opening day shortstop, a nontender candidate in search of a more robust role elsewhere.

Descalso appeared at second base in only nine of 63 starts last season. He started 53 games at third base — most of them while David Freese recovered from a fractured hand — and was solid enough to receive consideration for a Gold Glove.

Descalso's arm and glove are "plus" tools; however, his range at second base was considered no better than average during his time with Class AAA Memphis in 2010. Promoted to the parent club that September, Descalso played 73 of 74 innings at third base, not second.

Mozeliak explained succinctly: "I think he's a very good baseball player who can handle the position."

Pujols' departure, however, would force the club to reassess its offensive needs. If that occurs, Mozeliak concedes the club could pursue other middle-infield options.

The Cardinals will use this week to restart talks with their own free-agent shortstop, Rafael Furcal, after putting talks on hold in early September.

Furcal's agent, Paul Kinzer, has hinted that he seeks a two-year guarantee for his client, who served as catalyst for the Cardinals' improved defense immediately after his acquisition July 31 from the Dodgers.

The Cardinals typically have moved early on the shortstop position during Mozeliak's term as general manager. Cesar Izturis (2007), Khalil Greene (2008) and Theriot (2010) were acquired prior to the winter meetings.

Just as Mozeliak voices confidence in Descalso, he sees other organizational players in depth or potentially everyday roles.

Shortstop Tyler Greene, another 2005 draftee, appeared in a career-most 58 games this summer. Following his final recall from Memphis, Greene had only two plate appearances in September — both of them garnering RBI hits — while making five appearances as a pinch runner. He still led the team with 11 stolen bases despite reaching base only 33 times via hit or walk.

A popular theory is that Greene, 28, grew skittish playing in front of La Russa, who allowed Greene only six complete games at shortstop last summer despite the defensive issues that ultimately necessitated the trade for Furcal.

Mozeliak won't confine his projection for Greene to a reserve role, saying, "I would have no problem with him and Descalso as our middle infield."

The club also will approach veteran infielder Nick Punto about a possible return. Though various injuries limited Punto to only 166 plate appearances in 63 games, the switch-hitter had a career-high .809 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and provided defensive versatility.

Mozeliak endorses Jon Jay as an everyday center fielder rather than the lefthanded half of a platoon. With Schumaker as more of an extra outfielder than an infield regular, Greene could become available for spot center field duty against some lefthanded pitching.

The Cardinals apparently are ready to also break with a long-standing tradition of having veteran backup catchers as Mozeliak envisions Tony Cruz and longtime prospect Bryan Anderson competing for the role next spring.

Cruz, 25, bypassed Anderson, 24, on the organizational depth chart last summer and earned praise as a capable pinch hitter and mature backstop. Anderson, without options and considered a potential candidate for release last summer, never earned La Russa's confidence. However, Mike Matheny, one of the candidates for manager, offered positive reports on the lefthanded-hitting Anderson's defensive development in his role as a roving catching instructor.

Except for Yadier Molina's brief apprenticeship with Matheny in 2004, the Cardinals habitually have found their back-up catchers on the free-agent market, including Mike DiFelice, Einar Diaz, Gary Bennett, Jason LaRue or Gerald Laird.

The Cardinals have a surplus of predominantly righthanded relievers that include projected closer Jason Motte, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, Mitchell Boggs and arbitration-eligible Kyle McClellan. For now, Mozeliak believes there is no pressure to alleviate the logjam through trade.

"We have enough flexibility through options that we're really not forced to do anything," he said.

A team that reached the World Series with a renovated bullpen, a reconfigured double play combination and a largely built-from-within bench looks far more stable than it did four months ago.

"I really don't see the need for a high rate of churn," Mozeliak said.

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