© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

01/21/11 5:40 PM EST

Cards pick Punto to help with infield defense

Veteran signs to serve as utility infielder, third-base insurance

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals upgraded their infield defense on Friday, announcing that they have signed veteran Nick Punto to a one-year contract. Punto signed a Major League deal to serve as a utility infielder and an insurance policy at third base in case David Freese encounters any setbacks in his rehabilitation from ankle surgery.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Punto will make $700,000.

Punto, who turned 33 this offseason, is considered a strong defender at third base, shortstop and second base. He spent the past seven seasons with the Twins, and was a favorite of manager Ron Gardenhire. A switch-hitter, Punto turned in strong offensive seasons in 2006 and 2008, but scuffled at the plate the past two seasons. Punto batted .238 with a .313 on-base percentage and a .302 slugging percentage in 2010.

His defense, however, has remained outstanding, and that's the primary reason the Cardinals wanted him.

"It addresses a couple of things for us," said general manager John Mozeliak. "One thing that we believe is he's a very, very good defensive player at second, short and third, and will certainly give us protection there should we need it. We also see value in him being a switch-hitter, to give [manager Tony La Russa] a little more flexibility that way as well.

"And overall our hope is that David Freese is going to be our everyday third baseman, but if there is a problem there, we certainly know this man is capable of playing there every day."

Punto will serve as a backup at three positions, likely leaving only one spot available for youngsters Tyler Greene and Daniel Descalso. Mozeliak said that adding competition for the two young infielders was one of the benefits of the signing. Ramon Vazquez, who signed a Minor League contract over the weekend, will also be in that mix.

Additionally, if Freese has any hiccups in his return from surgery, Punto would likely step in as the primary third baseman.

"To his credit, [Punto] just really wanted to be a St. Louis Cardinal and really pushed for it," Mozeliak said. "Nick's thrilled about coming here. I always think when people show this kind of interest, it's always beneficial to the club."

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.