So, Cards general manager John Mozeliak's primary task is the same as it's been since he took over the reins as interim GM back in October: Bolster the rotation.
The question is: How?
St. Louis continues to survey the free-agent market, and continues to find a lack of bang for the buck. Sure, there are starters out there, but few are difference-makers. That's why the Winter Meetings provide an important opportunity for Mozeliak and the Cards front office. With 29 other teams gathering at the Gaylord Opryland, the trade market will be open for business. And the Redbirds would like to come home with some starting pitching help.
"I think [the Meetings] could be very active on the trade front," Mozeliak said. "And I think once a few dominoes fall on the free agent side, you could see a lot of guys move quickly after that."
One recent tactic is not likely to be employed again by the Cardinals. The buy-low pitcher is likely off the radar for the '07-'08 winter. Pitchers like Jon Lieber, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia could be bargain acquisitions for the right team, since all are coming off injury-shortened seasons. But Mozeliak said that this year, the Cardinals are not the right team for pitchers like that.
"We're always looking to see if there's some value out there in the market," he said. "But, right now, we don't want to focus on looking at someone that had a below-average year last year or performed below expectations, especially if it was related to an injury. That can be a little scary."
The problem is that the Cardinals already have two unknowns on their roster. Ace Chris Carpenter won't be back until at least midseason, after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow last July. And lefty Mark Mulder's status is uncertain as he recovers from another shoulder operation.
So, St. Louis will turn its eye to lower-risk pickups, which often tend to carry higher price tags. Thus, the challenge.
"Carpenter is Carpenter -- we understand that," Mozeliak said. "But until we know exactly what we're getting out of Mulder, it's hard to add to that equation with more risk. So as we attempt to acquire more starting pitching, it would make the most sense to mitigate risk as much as possible."
While the starting rotation is the highest-profile need, it's not the only one. The Cardinals still must address a pair of interconnected openings in their starting lineup. David Eckstein is testing the free-agent market, leaving the Redbirds with uncertainty at shortstop and in the leadoff spot.
In-house options do exist at short, even if the Cards are unlikely to turn to them. Brendan Ryan played well as a rookie in 2007, and Aaron Miles has played some shortstop. But the top of the order is a more vexing question.
"There are contingency plans out there," Mozeliak said. "Finding the right person out there to do that, it might not necessarily be a shortstop. There are a lot of things that could still happen with the makeup of our club. But in the short term, we do need a leadoff hitter and we need a shortstop."
Talks with Eckstein have progressed slowly, but a return has not been ruled out. The market has dried up somewhat for a shortstop looking for a team, improving the Cards' leverage.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.