Pujols front and center as Cards hit winter
Iconic slugger free to negotiate with all 30 Major League clubs
ST. LOUIS -- The eyes of baseball, so often on New York and Boston at this time of year, instead focus on the Gateway City as free agency gets off and running.
The Cardinals actually have very few major items on their offseason shopping list. It's just that the biggest question in all of baseball this winter centers on St. Louis.
Whether Albert Pujols stays or goes is the question, at Busch Stadium and around the league. Pujols is hitting free agency for the first time in his career after he and the club were unable to reach an agreement prior to the 2011 season.
And while there are other matters facing the Redbirds, Pujols' status dwarfs them all. General manager John Mozeliak made two moves late in the season, re-signing Lance Berkman and Chris Carpenter, at least in part so as to be able to clear the decks and focus on Pujols. The slugger is happy in St. Louis, and he's had success here, but that obviously won't be enough in and of itself. If it were, Pujols would have signed already.
Once that situation gains some clarity, the Cardinals will be able to move on to other matters. If they're spending more than $20 million for their first baseman in 2012 and beyond, it will likely require some belt-tightening elsewhere. If Pujols goes to another team, that frees up some cash to spend on other needs -- perhaps a shortstop or a late-inning reliever.
Either way, though, there's no denying that the Pujols question lingers over everything. The Cardinals would love to have him back. Under the right circumstances, he'd love to be back.
But that doesn't mean it's going to get done. Pujols is now able to talk terms with any and every team in baseball, and you can be sure that plenty of those teams will at least call agent Danny Lozano to find out what it will take to sign the first baseman.
Areas of need
First base: You may have heard about this one. Fellow named Pujols is up for free agency. Odds are, if the Cardinals are unable to sign Pujols, they won't sign another first baseman to take his place. The most likely scenario in that case would be for Berkman to move from right field to first base and Allen Craig to take over in right.
Second base: Two candidates are in-house and under team control, if not under contract, in Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot. Neither is a guarantee to be back, though, and if the Cards don't re-sign at least one of them, they'll be looking for a second baseman.
Shortstop: A reunion with Rafael Furcal probably makes the most sense for all parties involved, since there's not a lot out there and the internal options are uncertain. Tyler Greene has promise but has struggled to turn Triple-A production into big league success. Ryan Jackson might be a year or two away, which could make a short-term return engagement for Furcal the perfect fit.
Bullpen: There's a lot of depth on the right side, even if Octavio Dotel departs via free agency. But you can always use more. The Cardinals are unlikely to spend big on a closer, but they could add a high-upside right-hander, perhaps someone coming off an injury. They also will almost certainly add a lefty, whether that means bringing back Arthur Rhodes or finding someone else to complement Marc Rzepczynski.
Bench: The Cardinals could definitely use a right-handed-hitting center fielder to allow Jon Jay some days off. They need to identify a backup catcher if they don't re-sign Gerald Laird, but that player could already be in-house in the form of Tony Cruz. If they don't sign Nick Punto, the Cardinals may also be looking for a utility infielder, though Greene may fit well in that role.
It's likely to be more or less in the same ballpark as it was in 2011, which is to say north of $100 million but no higher than $110 million. The Cards have long maintained, though, that payroll is not set in stone. Instead, they look at whether individual expenditures make sense.
Free agents: Laird, C; Pujols, 1B; Nick Punto, IF; Furcal, SS; Corey Patterson, OF; Edwin Jackson, RHP; Rhodes, LHP
Eligible for arbitration: Schumaker, IF; Theriot, IF; Kyle McClellan, RHP; Jason Motte, RHP
Non-tender possibilities: Theriot, Schumaker, McClellan
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.