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Cardinals bolster defense with Izturis

Cardinals bolster defense with Izturis

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals have decided that one way to shore up their pitching staff is to improve the defense behind the hurlers. To achieve that goal, St. Louis signed free-agent shortstop Cesar Izturis to a one-year contract on Friday.

Izturis will apparently take over for David Eckstein, who is a free agent and has been the Cards' starter at shortstop for the past three seasons. Eckstein's range factor and fielding percentage both dropped in 2007, and he committed a career-high 20 errors. Izturis doesn't bring as much offense as Eckstein, but he is considered an elite defensive shortstop. He won a Gold Glove Award as the Dodgers' shortstop in 2004.

"We definitely value his defense," general manager John Mozeliak said on Friday afternoon. "We also think that offensively there could be more in there. Speaking with our staff, we felt that we could probably tap into a little bit more there, as well."

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Said Izturis: "There were a couple teams interested in my services, but all my career I've played against the Cardinals, hitting there and in the stadium, with the fans, the people, the team, it's so good. Now I have the opportunity to go there and prove myself and bring something good for the team. It's something that I was thinking about."

Mozeliak said that the club and Eckstein's representation were simply too far apart to believe that any deal was close. Eckstein spent three years as the Cards' starting shortstop and leadoff man, and his departure will disappoint many fans. Mozeliak acknowledged that it was difficult to part with Eckstein.

"We just couldn't agree on terms and dollars," the GM said. "Clearly he wanted to look at the market, and we recognized that, and it was just something where, as we got closer and closer to tomorrow's date [the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to their own free agents], the more uncomfortable we got by sitting back and not being able to fill that void.

"It was a very tough decision, obviously, with someone like David Eckstein, who is such a fabulous person. But we were really unable to grab hold of what both parties were trying to accomplish."

So St. Louis moved quickly to sign a replacement.

"When you look at what we were trying to accomplish, timing became very critical," Mozeliak said. "The shortstop market was one that if we waited too long, we may have been left with really no true option. So we had to get aggressive."

The Cardinals' overall defensive performance fell off significantly in 2007. The team finished ninth in the National League in defensive efficiency and 15th in fielding percentage. Those issues were magnified in front of a pitching staff that ranked 15th in the 16-team league in strikeouts -- meaning that a large number of balls were put in play and thus turned into base hits.

Hot Stove

So while the team still hopes to upgrade the pitching staff, it has addressed its run-prevention problems in another manner.

"There's no doubt that we've always built our club around defense," Mozeliak said. "And it was obvious that last year we took a few steps backward. So we do believe this should make us move forward in that regard."

Izturis split the 2007 season between the Cubs and Pirates, finishing the year with a .258 batting average, .302 on-base percentage and a .315 slugging percentage. He carries a lifetime line of .259/.295/.334. In his best season, 2004, he put up a .288/.330/.381 line and also stole 25 bases in 34 attempts. Izturis was an All-Star in 2005 for Los Angeles, though he hit .257/.302/.322 that year.

"The last two years have been up and down for me, and right now I feel 100 percent," Izturis said. "I'm playing winter ball and I feel good. Now it's an opportunity to come to St. Louis and help the team win. That's the bottom line."

Though Izturis has batted leadoff in his career, he is not particularly well-suited for the job at this point, so St. Louis likely still needs to identify a leadoff man for 2008.

"From an on-base perspective, I think he could perhaps become more selective," Mozeliak said. "And there are some other things just fundamentally that I heard that our staff would recommend he try to do overall. We recognize that this is not an offensive player when you look at his career, but we do think there could be more in there that could allow him to become that much more of a complete player."

To make room for Izturis on the 40-man roster, the Cardinals designated outfielder John Rodriguez for assignment.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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