Skip in the Lou

BY foxsports • October 13, 2009

ST. LOUIS -- The general consensus is the St. Louis Cardinals' offseason won't shift into gear until left fielder Matt Holliday decides whether he wants to return in 2010 --and whether the team can meet his contract demands.

Holliday, a pending free agent, has said he enjoyed playing for the Cardinals. But he has remained noncommittal about signing a long-term deal to stay in St. Louis.

If the Cardinals are able to sign Holliday, they will again return a productive middle of the order in first baseman Albert Pujols (.327, 47 homers, 135 RBIs), Holliday (.313-24-109) and right fielder Ryan Ludwick (.265-22-97)

But the signing of Holliday could prevent the Cardinals from addressing other needs and prevent them from retaining their other key free agents, specifically third baseman Mark DeRosa and pitchers Joel Pineiro and John Smoltz.

Outfielder Rick Ankiel, third baseman Troy Glaus, shortstop Khalil Greene and pitcher Todd Wellemeyer probably will not return next year. That will shed $24.625 million from the 2010 payroll.

Of course, the first order of business will be to determine whether manager Tony La Russa returns for a 15th season.

La Russa, 65, was bitterly disappointed by the Cardinals' three-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, and he wondered whether his style will continue to be effective with players.

La Russa, who has the unwavering support of Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and General Manager John Mozeliak, will use the next few days to emotionally detach himself from the NLDS loss before making a decision about his future.

Holliday at any cost?

If he's back in the dugout, La Russa would like to have Holliday as a part of his team. Holliday batted .353 with 13 home runs and 55 RBIs in 63 games with the Cardinals after they acquired him from the Oakland A's, but can they afford a six- or seven-year deal between $90 million and $105 million?

La Russa hoped to have a discussion with Holliday before he left St. Louis for the winter to gauge his interest in being with the Cardinals next season.

"We made it a point with anybody whose future was uncertain, we kept that out of our discussions," La Russa said. "I never asked him. I think it was a distraction.

"I think he likes this situation, but you go onto the market, he's the guy that answers those questions."

If Holliday doesn't return, the Cardinals have options.

Class AAA Memphis left fielder Allen Craig, 25, could fill the void in left field. Craig, like Holliday, a right-handed hitter, batted .322 with 26 doubles, 26 home runs and 83 RBIs in 126 games. But he doesn't have a big-league at-bat.

It seems unlikely, but the Cardinals could opt to put Skip Schumaker in left field. That, however, would create a major void at second base, and veteran Julio Lugo probably isn't an everyday option.

Plus, La Russa called Schumaker's conversion to second base from the outfield one of the most positive things that happened this year.

DeRosa or Freese?

DeRosa, acquired from the Cleveland Indians in June, batted just .228 with 10 homers and 28 RBIs in 68 games. He was hampered by a strained tendon in his left wrist that will require surgery in the next couple of weeks.

DeRosa will turn 35 in February, and the Cardinals must decide whether they would like to bring him back or turn to rookie David Freese.

Freese, 26, batted .300 with 10 homers and 37 RBIs in 56 games at Memphis after returning from arthroscopic surgery to his left ankle.

"It's a talented group," DeRosa said. "The sad part is there's going to be guys from this team that are not back. It's the last thing from my mind right now."

Smoltz wants to stay

Smoltz was encouraged with his short stint with the Cardinals. He was 1-3 with a 4.26 ERA in seven starts, with nine walks and 40 strikeouts in 38 innings after joining the team from Boston.

"As of right now, I do (want to pitch)," Smoltz said. "In a perfect world, if I could have one more run, gosh, that would be great. A lot of things have to play out --by both parties. But there would be no greater place to end up than here."

Smoltz, 42, could be a reliever in 2010, possibly a setup man to closer Ryan Franklin, who posted a career-high 38 saves before slumping late in the season.

"He definitely wants to pitch. I definitely think he can pitch," La Russa said of Smoltz. "I think his experience here was good enough, positive enough that he'll talk to our guys. We'll see. I speak personally, but I'm sure there's a lot to the organizational view that John Smoltz was impressive while he was here."

Too pricey?

Pineiro was 15-12 with a 3.49 ERA in 32 starts. He allowed 27 walks and 11 home runs in 214 innings, using a sinker to become one of the most effective ground-ball pitchers in the game.

Pineiro gave the Cardinals exactly what they needed, but can he repeat his performance in 2010? It seems certain Pineiro will test the free-agent scene and could receive a multiyear offer from a team that the Cardinals will be unlikely to match.

"I don't know what's going to happen the next two weeks, month, month and a half, two months," Pineiro said. "All I can say is I was healthy all year, and that was a big key for me.

"I have nothing against this team or the organization. I don't know what's in store for me. I don't know what's going to happen. I had a lot of fun here --great teammates and fans. We'll see what happens."

La Russa said keeping the Cardinals' four headline free agents is "going to be a matter of economics."

"There's Matt and what happens with that," he said. "You've got Joel, you've got John, you've got Mark DeRosa. There's a certain amount of money that's going to be available. You're not going to get everything you want."

Mainstays in 2010

Chris Carpenter (17-4, 2.24 ERA) and Adam Wainwright (19-8, 2.63 ERA) will return to lead the rotation next season.

"There were a lot of really, really good parts to our regular season," La Russa said. "Carp was right up there. You could see, when he was healthy, what an impact he made. And what a year Wainwright had."

Kyle Lohse (6-10, 4.74 ERA) also will be back, but the fourth and fifth spots are up for grabs. If Pineiro is allowed to leave via free agency, Smoltz, Mitchell Boggs (2-3, 4.19 ERA), Blake Hawksworth (4-0, 2.03 ERA) and Jaime Garcia could be candidates for the rotation.

Other relievers back for next season, in addition to Franklin, are left-handers Trever Miller (4-1, 2.06 ERA) and Dennys Reyes (2-1. 3.29 ERA) and right-handers Kyle McClellan (4-4, 3.38 ERA) and Jason Motte (4-4, 4.76 ERA) and possibly Brad Thompson (2-6, 4.84 ERA).

La Russa is eager to watch the continued development of rookie center fielder Colby Rasmus, who batted .251 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs in 147 games. By the end of the season, the 23-year-old Rasmus had supplanted Ankiel as the regular in center.

"I think he had a remarkable year for how young he is," La Russa said. "Next year, he'll be a year older, but he'll still be a young guy.

"The next step for any guy, any position player, is to watch Albert every day and do exactly what Albert does. He is the perfect example because he works, he's hungry, he's never satisfied, he wants to learn. That's what Colby needs to do. Any of these young guys, they need to push their talent to the max, and Albert's a perfect example."

Catcher Yadier Molina (.293-6-54), shortstop Brendan Ryan (.292-3-37) and Schumaker (.303-4-35) join Rasmus to give the Cardinals strong defense up the middle.