© 2009 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

11/19/09 12:00 AM EST

Cards must prep for future without Holliday

Re-signing slugger a priority but not the team's biggest

ST. LOUIS -- The doors open wide on Thursday night. It remains to be seen how rapidly the traffic will flow through them.

Free agency officially gets under way at 11 p.m. CT on Thursday, allowing teams to begin discussing contract terms with free agents throughout the Majors. Over the previous 15 days, clubs had been able to express interest in free agents from other teams but not to negotiate terms.

Though that can be bad news for teams trying to retain their own free agents, in the Cardinals' case, it may get some things going. The club has made little progress with star outfielder Matt Holliday. However, once Holliday's agent, Scott Boras, is free to negotiate with other teams, the Cards should be able to get a better feel for where they stand with both player and agent.

That doesn't mean anything will get done right away. Unlike in the NFL, when deals often come down immediately once the market opens, things tend to happen more slowly in baseball. But Thursday night allows teams to begin the process.

Holliday, of course, is not the only priority for the Cardinals, but he's one of the biggest. Whether by retaining Holliday or through other means, St. Louis must upgrade its lineup. The Cards also need to decide who their last two starting pitchers will be and they'll consider upgrading their bullpen. If Holliday does not re-sign, the team might also look to supplant rookie third baseman David Freese with a veteran.

"If we're not able to address left field with a Holliday, then we're going to look to have to add some veteran offensive presence," general manager John Mozeliak said.

"And if that means at third, we're going to have to consider it. We're not closing the door on anything, but as we sit here today, we think [Freese] deserves a shot to try to play there. But you look at the big picture, we've got to put our best offensive club forward, and I don't know what that looks like today."

The Cardinals' front office is consistently and steadfastly reluctant to be publicly pinned down to payroll targets, but it's a reasonable guess that -- including the estimates of arbitration-determined salaries -- they are committed to approximately $70 million for 2010. That could leave them as much as $30 million more, but that number also would need to include some leeway for such things as performance incentives and midseason callups.

With that said, however, there's enough wiggle room to upgrade the club, however it may happen.

Signing Holliday would put a significant dent in the financial structure and limit what else the Cardinals could do. If he does not sign, there would be more money available to improve the roster in other ways.

Either way, though, the top priority is likely to be the offense. Mozeliak has said that the Cardinals would be reluctant to make a long-term commitment to an additional starting pitcher. They'll likely add a veteran on a one- or two-year deal to pitch in the No. 4 spot while giving the fifth spot to a youngster such as Jaime Garcia or Mitchell Boggs.

Starting Thursday night, they'll be able to get more serious about making all of those moves.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.