With the best record in the National League (tied for the top mark in MLB) and two games away from their second World Series championship in the past three seasons (and third in 10 years), there's not much the Cardinals have to do to improve on for next season. St. Louis probably can't be seen as a prohibitive favorite for the NL pennant. Not with the Dodgers, Braves, Nationals and Pirates alongside them as competition. The Cards are strong contenders if they stand pat. They have the deepest pitching staff in MLB and an excellent lineup. But St. Louis won't maintain the status quo, not with one major concern to address and plenty of pieces for general manager John Mozeliak to offer up in trade.
The postseason made the completely obvious even more so: The Cardinals badly need a shortstop. Pete Kozma has value as a backup and defensive replacement, but St. Louis needs someone at that position to pose a threat on offense. Both the free agent and trade markets have some attractive options that Mozeliak will surely consider.
While the Cardinals have depth and versatility that's been able to cover for injuries during the past couple of seasons, the playoffs also exposed the need to strengthen the bench. The fact that manager Mike Matheny had no one suitable to pinch-hit for Kozma or his pitchers in later innings could well have been the difference against the Red Sox in the World Series. However, this issue could take care of itself with in-house solutions.
The free agent market offers two shortstops that could upgrade that position for the Cardinals. If St. Louis wants more offense, the obvious solution is Jhonny Peralta. Coming off a 50-game PED suspension, it's possible Peralta could be a bit less expensive. Yet his postseason performance (.333 average, .898 OPS) likely boosted his value. The Cards would lose something on defense (though FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating has viewed Peralta very favorably during the past three seasons), but Kozma can take over in late innings.
Stephen Drew is another option. Though he wouldn't appear to be a significant offensive improvement over Kozma, his batting average was nearly 40 points higher, while his OPS would bring an upgrade of more than 200 points. Drew would also bring much more power to the position, arguably just as much as Peralta. And his defense would be nearly as good as Kozma's.
After the shortstop concern is address, the Cardinals could have a lot of fun with their roster going into next season. Mozeliak and Matheny have so many possibilities to consider. If and when Carlos Beltran leaves via free agency, Allen Craig likely moves to right field and Matt Adams takes over at first base. Or Craig could stay at first while Oscar Taveras or Jon Jay plays in right. That would keep Adams on the bench and give the Cards one hell of a weapon to pinch-hit with or alternate at first base. Kolten Wong might be ready to start at second base, which could move Matt Carpenter to third base and make David Freese expendable. Or Wong gives Matheny another bat, this one with speed, to use from the bench.
The Cardinals have plenty of trade possibilities to work with, depending on how the roster shakes out. As mentioned above, Freese could get squeezed out of the starting lineup if Wong is ready to be the second baseman and Carpenter moves to third. Plenty of teams would be interested in a third baseman with 20-homer power and a strong glove (though UZR says 2013 was a rough year for him). Perhaps the Cards wouldn't risk trading Freese to the Dodgers or within the division to the Cubs, but what about the Phillies or White Sox?
St. Louis' pitching depth also gives them several pieces that could be moved. The emergence of Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller fill in the rest of the starting rotation alongside Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn. The Cards would also like to move Carlos Martinez into the rotation at some point, though he could begin next season in the bullpen. Jaime Garcia should be ready for next season and has two years remaining on his contract with an additional two club options. That gives the team seven starting pitchers. And that doesn't even include Chris Carpenter, who may take one more shot at coming back though most signs seem to point toward him retiring.
Mozeliak could keep all that surplus pitching, keeping some in the bullpen and giving the Cardinals the deepest staff in the league. Otherwise, Garcia appears to be a trade candidate, though he has at least $18 million owed to him. Lynn might yield the most in return as a 200-inning pitcher with 200-strikeout capability. He's under club control for four more years (and not eligible for arbitration until 2015), which would interest many teams seeking young pitching. Additionally, if Jason Motte recovers from Tommy John surgery and is able to pitch early in the season, perhaps he can build himself up into an asset to be moved at the trade deadline. (However, other teams might not be willing to trade much for a two- to three-month rental.)
Of course, the Cardinals could solve their shortstop problem through the trade market. Rumors have linked the White Sox's Alexei Ramirez to St. Louis before. The White Sox reportedly turned down a package build around Martinez, but might they be interested in revisiting that deal after seeing how the rookie pitched in September and the playoffs? Maybe Freese could be part of such a deal as well.
The Rangers are another team St. Louis could check in with for a possible deal. Is Texas more willing to deal for Jurickson Profar now than it was a year ago? Many have proposed a straight-up Taveras-for-Profar trade. Getting a shortstop for the present and future might be worth potentially weakening the future outfield by moving Taveras and continuing to play Jay regularly. The Rangers might be interested in some of the Cards' young pitching too.
But if Mozeliak really wants to go big, he could take a run at the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki. As a franchise shortstop, Tulowitzki would obviously be a massive offensive upgrade, given the Cards another middle-of-the-order run producer to go with Matt Holliday, Craig and Yadier Molina. But he'd also provide excellent defense. Perhaps best of all, St. Louis wouldn't have to worry about its shortstop for at least the next seven years, as Tulowitzki is signed through 2020 for at least $134 million.
If any team could put together a trade package to get a MVP-caliber shortstop and persuade the Rockies to trade their cornerstone player, it's the Cardinals. They certainly have plenty of pitching to offer Colorado, in addition to young run-producing hitters with major upside like Craig and Adams. Understandably, Colorado's owner says he's not looking to trade Tulowitzki (or Carlos Gonzalez). It would surely be tremendously unpopular with Rockies fans. But with the team unlikely to contend in the NL West for the next few seasons, the opportunity to add a boatload of young pitching and position player talent is something to strongly consider.