The keys to the offseason

“I love the smell of free agency in the morning.”

I don’t think anyone has actually said that. Maybe Scott Boras. Or Dan Lozano last November. But as the sun rose today, free agency officially opens and it begins that time of the year that gets referred to as the “Hot Stove League.” It doesn’t seem like anyone actually knows why it’s called the Hot Stove League either.

For the Cardinals there is some turnover in the coaching staff. Dyar Miller is out. Mark McGwire is leaving. Memphis Redbirds’ Pitching Coach Blaise Ilsley and Cardinals’ Assistant Hitting Coach John Mabry are expected to be promoted to fill those roles according to the Post-Dispatch.

Yesterday the Cardinals made the 1 year, $13.3 million qualifying offer to Kyle Lohse. Lohse now has a week to decide whether to accept that or test free agency for a bigger, multiyear deal. It was a move that was required in order for the Cardinals to get a compensatory draft pick for Lohse should he choose to sign elsewhere this offseason. Lance Berkman was not offered one as he would have likely accepted it wholeheartedly.

So what do the Cardinals need to do this offseason and how should they go about filling them? First off is to be aware that the payroll is pretty much maxed out as it is. The Cardinals are expected to be around $112 million if arbitration estimates are correct. That could make it difficult for the Cardinals to improve without electing to exceed that mark, one they said would be difficult to exceed just a couple seasons ago.

Here are the three things I think the Cardinals need to address this offseason and the moves I would attempt to do to improve them.

1. Solidifying the bench

Cardinals pinch hitters hit .190/.275/.256 last year. That .190 batting average was good for just 24th in the major leagues. Something has to give on the bench next season.

As part of that, going back to Lance Berkman. I would extend him a $1 million offer to return to the Cardinals in 2013. His role would be to play DH during the team’s 20 interleague games in American League ballparks as well as spell Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Allen Craig on a regular basis. It would allow the team a quality bat on the bench that would also allow them to keep Holliday and Beltran fresh, something that was definitely a question in September and October for the Cardinals this year (and last for Holliday as well).

Additionally, the team needs to find a right handed hitter who can play all three outfield positions. Shane Robinson tried mightily to be this guy, but in the end his .253/.309/.355 slash line just isn’t enough. The Cardinals have plenty of left handed weapons on the bench in Matt Carpenter (though he’s supposed to be working out at second base this offseason) and Skip Schumaker, but no real right handed complement.

I’ve seen names like Nick Swisher and Cody Ross bandied about out there by some non UCB bloggers, but it wouldn’t make sense for either of those guys to sign with the Cardinals and essentially be what is, by definition, a bench player. Not for the type of caliber those two players are.

I would personally target Reed Johnson. Since 2008 he’s been a player off the bench for the Cubs, Dodgers, and Braves. He’s had a .288/.337/.415 slash line. He has experience playing all three outfield positions. And last year he went 18-for-43 in pinch hitting situations, a .419 batting average. Among Cardinals’ with 20+ plate appearances as a pinch hitter, that would have led the team by over 150 points. Another option might be Ryan Spilborghs who hit .295 for the Rangers AAA team in Round Rock and didn’t see any major league action this year.

2. Look for a #1 left handed reliever.

Yes, the Cardinals do have Marc Rzepczynski. However, the Cardinals have failed the last few years when they’ve attempted to simply find a second left handed bullpen option. Last year left handed relievers for the Cardinals posted a 5.36 ERA over 99 innings.

Internal options would be Sam Freeman and Barret Browning. Both have potential, but neither is a good candidate in my eyes. Freeman seems like he could use a little more seasoning. And while Browning seems like a cool guy, there’s a reason he’s traveled around. I think he’d make a solid third left hander in a pinch, but not a guy I want to enter a season depending on.

So I think they ought to go with gusto and go acquire a top notch lefty. There are a couple good options on the market.

Jeremy Affeldt is wrapping up a 3 year, $14 million deal with the World Champion San Francisco Giants over which he posted a 3.09 ERA over 175 innings. He is a guy that is effective against left handed batters and right handed batters, something that would fit how Matheny seems to like to utilize his left handed relievers.

Another option could be Sean Burnett. Burnett declined his half of the mutual option to get out of his $3.5 million option with Washington. So it’s safe to assume that he’s looking for more than that this year. In two years in Washington on his last contract, he posted a 3.10 ERA over 113 innings. Burnett would be my first choice as he is routinely tougher on left handed batters than Affeldt is, but Affeldt does can shut down guys on both sides.

Neither of these options would be cheap and would likely require $4-5 million per year in a multiyear deal. But the returns could be huge for the Cardinals who would finally have a reliable left handed reliever in the bullpen, something they haven’t really had since Steve Kline.

The team may also look at Brian Fuentes again. I’m not sure what his status is since he left the team in August to deal with a personal issue. That ship may also have sailed because of it.

3. Answer the shortstop question

This is more of a long term question for John Mozeliak and the Cardinals’ front office to answer. Mozeliak knows it too. During our UCB Question & Answer session with him in September, he called it the organization’s weakest position as far as what they have and where they’re going with it.

Internally they have September hero Pete Kozma and highly regarded Ryan Jackson. Kozma was arguably the best hitting shortstop in baseball in the month of September, but his glove is still a question to me. And I think that Ryan Jackson suffers from Jimmy Journell syndrome. There was a time when Journell was called the Cardinals’ best pitching prospect, but he wasn’t that great. That was more of a reflection on the organization’s depth at the position rather than the player himself.

Rafael Furcal will be on the final year of a two-year deal he signed last December with the team. He missed the final month of the season with ligament damage in his throwing elbow. He may still need to have surgery which would almost certainly cost him a large chunk of the 2013 season. But that’s really the question for the Cardinals to answer and it’s why I have it at #3.

If Furcal can return healthy, we don’t need to acquire anyone. But this is the same guy that has only played in 60% of his team’s games over the last 5 years. This was the concern I had about him from day 1 when he came to the Cardinals and doubly so when he re-signed.

However, if Furcal can’t return, the Cardinals should start knocking on some doors. There is only one free agent I’d have interest in, that’s Alex Gonzalez. He spent some time on the disabled list last year but has been a plus defensive shortstop for the majority of his career. He also has decent pop in his bat. He could potentially be had cheaply. With the budget crunch for the Cardinals’, this seems to be the most likely method.

The alternative would be one of three shortstops who are rumored to be on the trade market. Texas’ Elvis Andrus, Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki, and Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy. First off, I don’t see the Orioles moving Hardy. Andrus could move and Tulowitzki would have to be the right move for the Rockies (i.e. solving a number of question marks).

Andrus would likely be cheaper than Tulowitzki. The Rangers have top prospect Jurickson Profar working his way up. For reference, Profar was the #1 Double-A prospect entering this season. #2 was the Cardinals’ Oscar Taveras.

Tulowitzki, I think, could be had. The versatility of the Cardinals’ minor league system right now would definitely benefit in that regard as well. I think a package around Matt Adams and Tyrell Jenkins along with a couple other prospects could be an offer that makes Colorado think. They have huge question marks. Personally, were I a Rockies fan, I would salivate over the idea of Adams’ power bat in Coors Field.

But I would also be surprised to see the Cardinals make a trade for a shortstop. A team is going to start asking with one of the Cardinals’ top pitching prospects like Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, or Carlos Martinez. I don’t think the Cardinals will want to trade out of that depth right now, especially with huge questions surrounding Jaime Garcia’s shoulder and Adam Wainwright’s contract. Until that’s settled, those five aren’t going anywhere.

And so it begins.