If the Cardinals indeed realign their middle defense in the coming weeks, general manager John Mozeliak believes significant change at shortstop more likely than at second base or center field.
Mozeliak departs Monday for Major League Baseball's general managers meetings in Orlando, Fla. Even before the club sets its 40-man roster Thursday, Mozeliak will enter his fourth season as head of baseball operations believing a thin free-agent market mixed with a well-timed trade (or two) are enough to heal an 86-win club.
"My belief is we've got a very strong starting point with this club," Mozeliak said.
As part of his winter blueprint, Mozeliak insists the club will more readily examine alternatives to Gold Glove contender Brendan Ryan at shortstop than second baseman Skip Schumaker or center fielder Colby Rasmus. Mozeliak called Rasmus "almost impossible to replace" given his production, potential and relatively low salary while admitting to strong support for Schumaker from manager Tony La Russa and his coaching staff.
"The basic agenda is how can we get more offense out of those (infield) positions or both," Mozeliak said. "There is a school of thought that Skip will produce more than he did last year. There's a comfort level of that being probable. In Brendan's case you would hope there would be some improvement, too. But if there were a way to address one of those positions in a positive way, we would pursue it. We probably have more of an emphasis on short than second at this point."
Schumaker entered last season with a career .302 average before struggling mightily for much of the first half. Schumaker, a converted outfielder playing his second season at second base, finished with a .265 average, only 66 runs and out of his familiar leadoff role.
The arbitration-eligible Ryan tumbled from a .292 average in 2009 to .223 last season while failing to amass a .300 on-base percentage in any month.
More damaging, La Russa several times voiced a belief that Ryan's offensive struggles bled into his defense.
Mozeliak long has been an ardent Ryan supporter. But the team's offensive inconsistency for much of a disappointing season has forced him to look for ways to incremental offensive improvement.
"When you think about Brendan's year defensively, it's going to be hard to find anything that's better than him," Mozeliak said. "But when you look to improve your offense, it has to be a consideration."
A shortstop with leadoff capability would represent a perfect fit. The New York Mets recently assumed the 2011 option on shortstop Jose Reyes but may listen to offers as they hint at a roster makeover that could also involve center fielder Carlos Beltran.
Schumaker more likely will return at second base than to a super-utility role, Mozeliak indicated. He all but ruled out trading Schumaker, who is due $2.7million next season in the final installment of a two-year contract extension.
The Cardinals seek insurance for the infield's left side while third baseman David Freese continues to rehab from recent surgery on both ankles. Mozeliak prefers a utility type. "It's going to be tough to sign somebody who wants to play there every day," he said.
For now, the organizational tandem of Jon Jay and Allen Craig projects as next season's right-field platoon. However, Mozeliak did not rule out searching for an experienced bat that could add heft to a position that averaged more than 105 RBIs in 2008-09. Acquiring a veteran hitter who is limited defensively may be part of that equation.
Mozeliak holds out hope that the club can retain free-agent pitcher Jake Westbrook but allows that the club may reshape its search for an innings eater should the issue linger much longer.
"I suspect this is not going to be something that can leak into December," Mozeliak said.
There is no desire to replace Ryan Franklin as closer, according to the general manager, and the search for a lefthanded reliever to replace free agent Dennys Reyes is secondary to upgrading the lineup.
That lineup apparently will include Rasmus for a third year, though Mozeliak stopped short of classifying the 24-year-old as untouchable this winter.
"Every player in the right deal could be traded," Mozeliak said, "but we are not shopping him. More importantly, I think it would be very difficult or almost impossible for us to replace him. So the way we're planning on moving, he's a big part of our club."
Mozeliak has worked to improve a sometimes jagged relationship between player and manager that in July led Rasmus to request a trade during a heated exchange with La Russa. Mozeliak does not deny an issue existed but insists edges have been smoothed.
"We've all talked through it," Mozeliak said. "I really don't see it as a big issue anymore."
Mozeliak added: "I don't think someone with his service time (two years) can pick and choose where he wants to be. That's the nature of this business. If somebody didn't want him here — the manager, for example — we'd have to do something about it. But Tony realizes he's a talented player and can help us win some games."