ST. LOUIS -- It's not as though Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has nothing else to do when the Winter Meetings convene in Dallas next week. But he's fully aware that as baseball's annual offseason convention approaches, he's going to be asked about one topic above all others: Albert Pujols.
When baseball descends upon the Hilton Anatole, it will provide an opportunity for Mozeliak to meet face to face with Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano. Of course, Lozano will also have 29 other GMs under the same roof with him, offering the chance for Pujols' market to move.
And history suggests that it's often that trigger that gets deals like this going. Many of the top free agents in recent years have signed either during or shortly after the Winter Meetings. Whether Pujols follows that trend remains to be seen, but this much is sure: The Cards would love to have resolution, one way or another, on the matter.
"I think it would be helpful to address this in the next few weeks for sure," Mozeliak said. "I don't think we want to take this into January if we don't have to."
That's because Pujols isn't the only player the Cardinals hope to sign before the winter is out. They have needs in their middle infield and bullpen, and they could use some bench help, particularly a backup center fielder. The starting rotation is set, and there are plenty of options in house to address most of the other issues, but the roster isn't set.
Or at least, that's the hope. Mozeliak said he's open to the possibility of making only minor tweaks between now and Spring Training, if Pujols is signed.
"If we had to go in with the roster how it looks, I think we're OK," he said. "Abviously getting [Adam] Wainwright back is a big bonus, and then letting some things flesh out, I think that's an OK approach. But there's also an opportunity for us that, if we weren't able to sign Albert, we would have resources to do some other things that we're not really about or focusing on at the moment."
Still, Pujols looms over so much of it. It's clear that the slugger won't be signed for anything less than a serious premium, in terms of dollars and years. That means that the Cardinals will approach their other needs differently based on whether or not they're paying Pujols in 2012 and beyond.
As a result, it's difficult even to say exactly how much money the Cards have to spend. They're committed to approximately $80 million already, before any arbitration-related raises, and the payroll is likely to come in somewhere in the neighborhood of $105-110 million. Thus, the math is somewhat unforgiving if Pujols signs, and the Redbirds might be forced to look to the trade market to address some of their needs.
An intriguing subplot to watch will be whether the Cards' process or targets look any different under new manager Mike Matheny. Tony La Russa had a strong voice in personnel decisions; it's unclear what Matheny's position will be. Mozeliak, however, wants his new manager to be involved.
"One of the things that's important about this hire is to get an opinion from him," Mozeliak said. "He's going to have a voice in the decision-making. That's very critical to a successful organization. We weren't looking for someone who would just nod his head."
The Cardinals have been known to tend to small matters in recent years at the Winter Meetings, but one recent trend is likely to end. St. Louis has made a habit of signing its backup catchers while at the Meetings. That probably won't be the case for the 2012 team, since next season's backup catcher is almost certainly already in the organization. Tony Cruz appears to be the favorite, while fellow system product Bryan Anderson could get one more look.
In the middle infield, the Cards could go with what they have at second base, where several different pieces could add up to a useful whole. Daniel Descalso will be back, and the club controls Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot (assuming that neither is non-tendered). Shortstop presents more of an opportunity to upgrade, though Mozeliak asserted that it's also an option to give Tyler Greene a longer look than he's had in the past.
If there's one position that likely rests heavily on what happens with Pujols, it's short. With Pujols, someone like Greene becomes more of an option. Should Pujols leave, a free-agent signing is a greater possibility. Mozeliak said he would be loath to trade from the Minor League system, but could be open to trading off the Major League roster if a fit presented itself. The Cards definitely could trade from a surplus of right-handed relievers.
When it comes to the Rule 5 Draft, the Cardinals could look to make a move, but they don't have a lot of opportunity. They have 36 players already on their 40-man roster, and that's before making any other additions.
History suggests that overall it's likely to be a quiet week for the Cards, at least as far as the bottom line is concerned. Plenty of business will be conducted. Plenty of groundwork will be laid. But St. Louis' pattern in recent years has been to set things in motion during the Winter Meetings, then finalize things afterward.
Since 2005, the only major transaction the Cardinals have completed at the Winter Meetings was a one-year deal with Brad Penny in '09. Overall, the Meetings have been where things start, not end, for St. Louis. Depending on Pujols' situation, that's likely to be the case again in 2011.
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.