ST. LOUIS -- As the Cardinals got started on roster-building this offseason, their biggest question revolves around a player who is actually under contract for 2011.

Albert Pujols' future looms over any major decisions the Redbirds make this winter. On Wednesday, the club exercised its option on Pujols for 2011, but after that he could become a free agent. The magnitude of a potential Pujols deal is so great that virtually any significant moves will be made in light of its impact.

Which could complicate things, because there are upgrades to be made. A disappointing 2010 means that St. Louis needs to improve its roster. The offense definitely needs a boost after it became a three-man show far too often in the second half. The starting rotation has a question mark as well, and then there are smaller matters like left-handed relief and a backup catcher.

It's going to be a busy winter, and it likely starts almost immediately.

Before they get to addressing the Pujols situation or upgrading the 2011 roster, though, the Cardinals will answer another question. The club expects to have an answer from manager Tony La Russa regarding his future relatively soon after the season, and at that time the coaching staff's fate will probably be learned as well.

Having picked up Pujols' option, the Cardinals go into the winter with approximately $80 million committed to nine players. They're probably not liable for a great deal of expenditures via arbitration, but even so, that doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room. The 2011 payroll will likely be somewhere in the general vicinity of $100 million.

So barring a trade, it's hard to envision them with more than $15 million available for upgrades this winter, once arbitration-eligible players and pre-arbitration players are figured into the mix.

With that money, they'll have to achieve several goals: filling out the starting rotation, bolstering the offense and finding a backup catcher and a left-handed reliever. It won't be easy.

The advantage is that there are in-house options for the rotation and the offense. The Cards can't go in-house for every need, by any means. But if, for example, they choose to spend on a corner outfielder, they could then bring back at least one of their starting middle infielders from this year. And vice versa -- if they make significant upgrades in the middle infield, an Allen Craig-Jon Jay platoon becomes more palatable in right field.

Still, for better and worse, there's a lot in place. That allows some security and stability, but it also means that improving the club will be a challenging exercise.

Contract issues
Free agents: Mike MacDougal, RHP; Brad Penny, RHP; Dennys Reyes, LHP; Jake Westbrook, RHP; Jason LaRue, C (has announced his retirement); Pedro Feliz, 3B; Aaron Miles, IF; Randy Winn, OF
Eligible for arbitration: Jaime Garcia, LHP; Kyle McClellan, RHP; Brendan Ryan, SS
Player options: None
Club options: Jeff Suppan, RHP
Non-tender possibilities: Realistically, none

Catchers

Yadier Molina: Stepped back a bit offensively, still the gold standard defensively
Matt Pagnozzi: Impressed in brief stint, but may not have been enough
Bryan Anderson: Club does not seem inclined to give him a serious look
Jason LaRue: Retiring after suffering career-ending concussion

Molina is the man once again, but for the third time in four years he was forced to miss significant September time due to injury. As a result, the Cardinals seem likely to seek a backup who can play more games than they've had in recent years. Pagnozzi makes a fine third option to have at Triple-A, available to step in when needed, and Anderson could be trade bait.

First base

Albert Pujols: still the best
Mark Hamilton: Tough to find a spot for him

Pujols is still the game's best player, but the question is whether 2011 will be his last season in a Cardinals uniform. Negotiations with him will be one of the biggest stories, if not the single biggest story, of the offseason. Hamilton has promise, but likely will have to play the outfield as well as first base if he wants to be a Cardinal for any significant chunk of next season.

Second base

Skip Schumaker: slow start made for subpar final numbers
Daniel Descalso: Seized late-season opportunity, but where does he fit?
Aaron Miles: Showed he still has some life in his second St. Louis stint

Overall, Schumaker regressed at the plate, though it was nearly all in the first two months of the season. However, he also didn't take the defensive step forward that the Redbirds hoped for. As a result, though he's signed for '11 and is a key cog in the clubhouse, second base is definitely a position where the Cardinals could seek an upgrade.

Shortstop

Brendan Ryan: As good as anyone with the glove, but bat is still a question
Tyler Greene: Still seeks consistent success in the Majors

Ryan comes in as the incumbent, but not a sure thing. Greene has shown a live bat in the Minors and is a plus fielder, though Ryan is an absolutely elite defensive player. This is a position where the Cardinals could seek an offensive upgrade, but Ryan's defense would be very difficult to replace.

Third base

David Freese: Ability is not in question. Health is
Pedro Feliz: Late-season pickup just didn't seem to have much left

Third represents an enormous question mark going into the offseason. Greene and Descalso, by trade a shortstop and a second baseman respectively, both saw time there. Feliz is likely gone. The ideal scenario would be for Freese to come back strong, but staying healthy has been an ongoing issue for him, and at this point the Cardinals can't risk going into '11 without an alternative. A good fit would be a player, such as Felipe Lopez in 2010, who could fill in at third base but also play other positions if Freese is fully good to go. Of course, the hope would be that that player turns out to play better than Lopez did.

Outfield

Matt Holliday: Had a typically excellent season despite slow-ish start
Colby Rasmus: Another leap next year and he'll be an All-Star
Jon Jay: Outperformed expectations, but cooled off in August and September
Joe Mather: Versatile, well-liked, but still an uncertain quantity at the plate
Nick Stavinoha: Great Triple-A numbers still haven't translated in the Majors
Randy Winn: Did what was asked, but hard to see him back for '11
Allen Craig: Came on strong in September; promising hitter

Rasmus and Holliday add up to two-thirds of a premier outfield. The question is who makes up the final third. It could be a Jay/Craig platoon. However, if the Cardinals want to upgrade their offense, a corner outfield spot could be one place to do it. Among the options on the table could even be moving Holliday to right field and signing a left fielder. There's a nice assortment of bench players available depending on what happens with the third starting spot.

Rotation

Adam Wainwright: Cy Young candidate once again
Chris Carpenter: Strong year but a rough last eight weeks
Jaime Garcia: Amazing breakout year helped keep team in contention
Jake Westbrook: Looked a lot like the pitcher the Cards have coveted over the years
Kyle Lohse: Still trying to get right after forearm injury
Jeff Suppan: Had value as fill-in, but future is uncertain
Brad Penny: Didn't pitch after May

The top three look pretty good going into '11, and assuming he's healthy, you have to figure that Lohse will begin '11 in the rotation. The question is the last spot, whether the Cardinals go in-house with a youngster or sign someone. Westbrook would be an excellent fit if the right contract can be reached. He pitched well as a Cardinal and the club liked what he brought. St. Louis will probably also want to go into the season with an established option as its sixth starter.

Bullpen

Ryan Franklin: Another strong year, still might retire after '11
Kyle McClellan: Quietly one of the league's best setup men
Jason Motte: Hard thrower may be the closer of the future
Blake Hawksworth: Had some rough sledding early, but contributed as swingman
Trever Miller: Numbers were down in '10, needs to bounce back some in '11
Dennys Reyes: Like Miller, less effective than in '10; will he be back?
Mitchell Boggs: Progressed nicely in first full year as a reliever; serious power arm
Mike MacDougal: Had a rough go after coming from Nats organization
Adam Ottavino: Missed nearly all of second half due to shoulder injury
Fernando Salas: Emerged as useful reliever, throwing strikes
P.J. Walters: Up and down, but ended on a very big up

The right side of the bullpen was a strength in 2010, just as it was in '09, and just as it is likely to be again in '11. It's a deep and effective group, and everyone is back. The left side is the question, where Miller was less effective than he had been a year before and Reyes is a free agent. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Cards add a left-hander who could pitch an inning at a time, rather than a pure matchup type.