The St. Louis Cardinals are still alive and well in the 2013 season. That doesn't mean that it is too early to look forward to 2014 and what the team can do to improve, though.
The Cardinals are a strong team offensively. The youth of the franchise gives General Manager John Mozeliak a lot of freedom to work within the confines of the team's budget. With homegrown stars around the diamond, the team does not tend to dabble in the free agent market often. There is room for improvement on this team and there are a few free agent hitters that can fill those needs.
The Cardinals can afford to improve at three key positions: shortstop, center field, and on the bench.
The team shows depth within the organization, but the bench remains an area that can be improved. The lack of solid hitters coming off the bench in key pinch hitting situations leaves St. Louis looking for options late in games that it simply doesn't have.
There is help out there in free agency at the shortstop position and it is a name familiar to the franchise. Most seem to believe that the team will go by way of trade to fill this need. They may not have to if the interest is mutual.
Finally, Jon Jay has been an adequate center fielder that has failed to produce at the level at which many would like to see him. There is an answer in free agency to address that need as well if the team is willing to make a big move this offseason.
All statistics in the following slides of this article are sourced from Baseball-Reference.
The projection of players that will be free agents this offseason is sourced from MLB Trade Rumors.
Omar Infante has enjoyed a solid season as a member of the Detroit Tigers and would fit in very well with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Adding Infante would give the Cardinals a utility player that fits well into the mold of what the team values. He plays second, short and third on defense and would provide an upgrade over Daniel Descalso offensively. He can be used as a backup or a regular second baseman should the team decide to part ways with David Freese and move Matt Carpenter back to his natural position at third base.
Infante does not strike out a lot and has a career .279 batting average over his 12 year career. His veteran leadership on the bench is something this team has lacked over the last few seasons.
Simply put, Infante is the player the team was hoping Ty Wigginton would be in 2013.
David DeJesus was high on my wish list of trade targets for the Cardinals during the stretch run, and he remains high on my list of free agents this offseason.
I don't have anything against Shane Robinson or Adron Chambers. They both offer something to the team that has a place and time. The problem is, I would much rather have David DeJesus taking over an outfield position in a pinch than either of those two.
DeJesus provides some power, a consistent bat and veteran leadership that this team lacks greatly. He is not going to hit 25 home runs or drive in 75 runs a year, but he definitely provides much less of a drop-off from the starters on this team. He is not a guy I want playing everyday, but I am much more confident with a bench that features DeJesus than I am with one that relies on Chambers in late-inning games.
Curtis Granderson is the pipe dream at the top of everyone's wish list this offseason. His health may be a concern, but if he is going to bounce back, and there is no reason to believe he will not, he injects a bat into the middle of any lineup in Major League Baseball.
Granderson is fully capable of hitting over 30 home runs and driving in more than 100 runs in a season. He provides a solid defensive replacement in center field and makes an already dangerous lineup that much more dangerous in the future.
The contract that Granderson will demand will price him well out of the range of St. Louis, but if you're compiling a list of players that would help the team and you're looking at center fielders, it would be impossible not to think of Granderson.
Stephen Drew may be the most obvious name on the list. The Cardinals need a shortstop, and Drew might be looking for a new home in 2014. Drew was a player that I wanted the Cardinals to sign last offseason, and he has done nothing to cause me to feel otherwise.
Drew signed a one-year contract with the Boston Red Sox for the 2013 season. It gave the often-injured shortstop a chance to prove that he could be productive and healthy for an entire season. His season was not an extreme success by any means, but would still be a drastic improvement over the production the Cardinals have achieved at the position.
Derrick Goold of StlToday.com caught up with Drew's agent, Scott Boras, while in Los Angeles this week. Boras took time to describe the type of team that Drew would be looking to play for in 2014 and it seems the Cardinals would be a good fit for the profile.
“I think in the end Stephen is going to be very attractive to clubs that already are very, very good and want to win,” Boras said. “They are going to have a club that is going to be a really good team for four to six years and they already have a pitching staff. They know offensively, they’re going to get that production from shortstop.”
The Cardinals' depth at shortstop in their organization shows no hope for the future. The 30-year-old Drew will be looking for a multi-year contract with an organization where he can contribute to a winning culture.
This is the free agent deal that the Cardinals should not let pass them by.
Ben Zobrist offers a productive bat and the ability to play multiple positions. He plays well as a shortstop or second baseman and has spent time in right field as well. Overall, he is a run-producing bat that could shore up the bottom half of the Cardinals' lineup immediately.
Sliding Zobrist in at second would move Matt Carpenter to third base and boost the lineup quickly. Zobrist is the run producer that everyone hopes David Freese will become, and Zobrist is that hitter today. Starting him at shortstop every day might be asking a bit much from his defensive play, but he could easily provide some relief to the starting shortstop from time to time without a huge drop off in production. His ability to play right field should not be overlooked here, either. Whether the team brings back Carlos Beltran, goes with top prospect Oscar Taveras or utilizes Allen Craig, having a bat like Zobrist can be beneficial.
Ben Zobrist is worth a solid look on the free agent market and should be considered by the Cardinals this offseason.
Jacoby Ellsbury may be the free agent that could impact the Cardinals the most, if they would go after him. Whether or not the team will chase Ellsbury is another story.
Ellsbury will enter a free agent market that is very thin at his primary position, center field. His price will most likely be high and the length of the contract may grow beyond the Cardinals' comfort zone. The 30-year-old outfielder that has spent his entire career with Boston will certainly be looking forward to a handsome contract.
He is a prototypical leadoff hitter that boasts a high on-base percentage and a stolen base threat. Ellsbury at the top of the Cardinals' order would allow Matt Carpenter to hit second and give the middle of the order a very good chance to hit with men on base.
He is a veteran outfielder with postseason experience that could provide a perfect replacement for Carlos Beltran, should the Cardinals see him leave. It would allow the Cardinals to play Oscar Taveras in right field, where many projections feel that he will thrive.
Stephen Drew is the player the Cardinals should sign. Jacoby Ellsbury is the player that would have the greatest impact for them.
The St. Louis Cardinals have developed a very successful formula when it comes to their roster. They have a proven ability to develop major-league talent from within their organization. General Manager John Mozeliak has been very calculated in any risk he takes in free agency.
Some have been busts and left the team still trying to figure out what to do at the position they were trying to fill. Some have worked out very well and proven to be successful on the field and in the clubhouse.
Ultimately, it is hard to argue with the decisions Mozeliak makes. The Cardinals need to upgrade a few spots on their roster, and those upgrades will have to come from outside of the franchise. Who Mozeliak signs to fill those roles will define the future of this team for years to come.
Cardinal fans will just have to trust that Mozeliak makes the right choice again this time.
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