St. Louis Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak has just left town to join the rest of baseball's higher-ups in the Orlando-bound GM Meetings, and that's just pretext enough for the early whispers of the Hot Stove League to amplify themselves into a difficult-to-understand sound collage of MLB rumors, suggestions, and baseless conjecture.
Some rumors have already lodged themselves deep into the Cardinals' Hot Stove discourse. Miguel Tejada is a perennial object of Tony La Russa lust, for his nebulous veteran credentials, and Juan Uribe has ridden a single Tweet from Buster Olney to the front of the middle-infield-upgrade line. Perennial trade targets like Dan Uggla and Stephen Drew will remain on the docket until forcibly removed by the teams that are actually paying them.
With so few actual names on the Cardinals' radar this early, I think it's more important to talk about the top five places where the Cardinals could upgrade than the shape those upgrades might take.
1. Fourth Starter
As ever, the Cardinals will head into the offseason with the back of the rotation as a primary concern. Right now the fourth-starter-by-default is Kyle Lohse, who spent most of the 2010 season trying to build awareness for Extreme Compartmental Syndrome. That's bad news, even if he is progressing nicely. Lohse's bWAR over the first two seasons of his ill-advised long-term contract tips the scaled at -3.6, and the traditional stats aren't any fonder; he's been 10-18 with an ERA of 5.54 in just over 200 innings pitched.
The most obvious solution to the fourth starter problem ended the season on the Cardinals' roster, and the team has been negotiating with Jake Westbrook ever since. Per Ken Rosenthal, that might no longer be a sure thing, but it is certain that the Cardinals can't go into the 2011 season with the personnel they've got now. Behind Kyle Lohse are Kyle McClellan, who was also one of the Cardinals' most effective relievers, and Lance Lynn, who struggled to adjust to AAA Memphis before striking out 16 batters in a playoff start.
2. and 3. Second Base, or Shortstop, or Second Base And Shortstop
This one has brought about some richly deserved consternation on Viva El Birdos, the de facto home of the Brendan Ryan Fanclub, based on recent comments from John Mozeliak that suggest the Cardinals are more likely to upgrade at shortstop than second base.
This happens to be the wrong idea.
Brendan Ryan somehow had a better season than Skip Schumaker last year, he definitely had a better season the year before, and he's likely to have a better season this year.
But choosing between Schumaker and Ryan is only a meaningful thing to do if the Cardinals plan on upgrading to somebody in the Uggla/Drew class—somebody who's clearly better than Ryan or Schumaker would be, even if they regressed back to their 2009 selves in 2011. If the Cardinals plan on signing somebody like Juan Uribe, they'll need to do the kind of infield rotation they were hoping would work out with Felipe Lopez. Brendan Ryan is more versatile than Schumaker in that case, too, able to act as a kind of utility infielder who pushes everybody who is starting down the defensive spectrum.
4. Third Base
It's a shame the Cardinals already dealt with the Felipe Lopez experience—their ideal free agent infielder would be able to play second, short, or third, to deal with Ryan and Schumaker's inconsistency and David Freese' inability to stay healthy when near a car, a weight room, or a baseball field.
The Cardinals have more depth at third than they do elsewhere, with Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter and Zack Cox making a nice line all the way down the minor league system at the position. But with Freese apparently unlikely to play a full season, the Cardinals will be well-served in upgrading their Major League backup beyond Tyler Greene.
5. Fifth or Sixth Starter
The Cardinals' No. 2 starter, who is 36 years old, has missed three full seasons in his career. Their No. 3 starter, entering his sophomore season, pitched just 40 innings in 2009 after recovering from elbow surgery, and had a season better than anybody could have expected. Their No. 4 starter — the one they're hunting for right now, ostensibly to stabilize this rotation — missed almost all of the 2008 and 2009 seasons before turning into an above-average innings eater.
And their fifth starter is Kyle Lohse.
These St. Louis Cardinals will not be repeating the trick the 2004 Cardinals managed, with five starters making at least 28 starts. A sixth starter, even a really risky one, will help spread some of those inevitable injuries and soft-spots around. And luckily for the Cardinals, really risky sixth starters are all over the place this year: Javier Vazquez, Rich Harden, Brandon Webb, Justin Duchscherer, and even Pedro Martinez are all on the market. My personal favorite is Koji Uehara, an outstanding reliever who could step into the starting rotation if and when Lohse collapses, but if the worst-case scenario is that Kyle Lohse is pushed out of the rotation... well, I'm fine with that.