Cardinals winter meetings preview

ST. LOUIS – A year ago, Cardinals manager John Mozeliak spent nearly his entire time at the winter meetings in Dallas negotiating with the agent for Albert Pujols.

And it was there, on the final Thursday morning just as the Rule 5 Draft was getting ready to start, when he received a call that Pujols had decided to sign with the Anaheim Angels.

Mozeliak quickly and quietly departed the hotel and headed for the airport, returning to St. Louis with a fairly important shopping list. He needed to find a middle of the lineup power bat to replace Pujols and a shortstop.

Neither the suspense nor heartbreak will happen this time around when baseball’s general managers, owners and club personnel convene in Nashville, Tenn., beginning Sunday for the annual winter meetings.

The wish list is much smaller for Mozeliak and the Cardinals. They’d like to find a left-handed reliever, either through free agency or a trade. And they could use a right-handed hitter with some power for the bench. But their needs are only complementary, a big difference from a year ago.

Both Kyle Lohse and Lance Berkman are free agents but the Cardinals are unlikely to pursue resigning either. Lohse will likely command at least a four-year contract for upwards up $60 million dollars and the Cardinals have a plethora of younger and cheaper arms waiting to fill his spot.

Berkman played in just 31 games for the Cardinals last year and hasn’t decided whether or not he wants to play again in 2013. After making $12 million from the Cardinals this past season and with no real spot to play (Allen Craig at first and Carlos Beltran in right), there doesn’t figure to be a match for him either.

The Cardinals biggest need comes for a left-handed reliever to team with Marc Rzepczynski. The lefty struggled in his first full season with the Cardinals, but part of that could have been related to the lack of a quality second left-handed option to work along side him.

Veteran J.C. Romero was released following a rough stretch in May and rookie Sam Freeman struggled during limited appearances down the stretch. Rzepczynski was the only left-hander on the Cardinals’ playoff roster.

The lefty relief market doesn’t figure to be cheap. The Giants re-signed lefty Jeremy Affeldt to a three-year, $18 million deal. The Nationals’ Sean Burnett, regarded as the next best available lefty reliever, turned down a $3.5 million option for 2013, instead electing for free agency.

“We knew going in that the lefty relief market wasn’t a great place to be shopping in the sense of there’s just not a lot of them out there,” Mozeliak said. “As we look at a lot of our options, it may come from trade. It might be a little premature to just determine where exactly that’s going to come from, but we’re still interested in finding one.”

Potentially cheaper lefty relief options in free agency include Mike Gonzalez and Randy Choate if they decide not to make a trade.

The Cardinals originally thought they would need to find a shortstop this winter with Rafael Furcal dealing with a serious elbow injury. But a recent MRI showed that his tear had completely healed and he expects to be 100 percent by spring training.

Starter Jaime Garcia is progressing nicely from a shoulder injury and the Cardinals plan for him to have a normal spring training as well. They don’t plan to add any additional pitching depth this winter.

“I think from a strategic standpoint on the pitching side, I think we have enough depth that should something not go as planned, we should still be OK,” Mozeliak said. “Having said that, you don’t want to go into this where your taking an unnecessary risk, but that’s why he’s somebody that we’re just going to keep paying attention too all winter.

“He’ll have a normal rehab. Basically December shut down, begin a throwing program in January.”

In addition to searching for a potential right-handed power option for the bench, the club has yet to name an assistant hitting coach. Last year’s assistant hitting coach John Mabry was promoted to hitting coach when Mark McGwire left for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

And at some point, the Cardinals may find it productive to engage Adam Wainwright and his agent in contract negotiations to keep the ace in St. Louis long term. The right-hander is set to become a free agent after 2013 season.