Yes, it is difficult to project improvement from a club that won 97 games. But Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak identified the areas in which his club needed to improve and then improved those areas.
The Cardinals needed improved defense in center and an injection of speed. Presto, there was Peter Bourjos from the Angels in a trade for third baseman David Freese. Some Cardinals loyalists were bound to blink at this, because Freese was a hometown hero, MVP of both the 2011 NLCS and World Series.
Bourjos, though, is not only a speedster, but a splendid outfielder, one of the game's very best.
Next, Mozeliak filled the need for a shortstop with a more productive bat by signing free agent Jhonny Peralta. Again, if you wanted to raise an eyebrow, there was the matter of Peralta taking a 50-game suspension in 2013 for connection to the Biogenesis scandal, then receiving a four-year, $53-million contract. But there wasn't much doubt about Peralta's capabilities. He is an average Major League shortstop in the field, but a better-than-average offensive shortstop.
To compensate for Freese's departure, the Cardinals will return Matt Carpenter to third base, and install prospect Kolten Wong at second. Carpenter had a big season in 2013 in all phases of the game, even though it was his first time at second base. Wong, in a relatively brief look, did not hit as expected.
For second-base insurance and a solid veteran presence, the Cards signed Mark Ellis, most recently of the Dodgers. Ellis passed up the opportunity to sign with clubs that offered him something closer to a guarantee that he could play every day. Ellis said he chose the Cardinals because he believed this club had one of the best chances of any team to get back to the World Series in 2014.
That's the idea. There are three points to be made about the totality of the St. Louis moves. The players they obtained are all right-handed hitters, which should give the Redbirds better balance.
There wasn't much to complain about with a team that hit a semi-unbelievable .330 with runners in scoring position, and led the NL in runs scored. But the Cardinals did hit a mere .238 against lefties last season, while leading the league against right-handers at .280.
The Cardinals did lose right fielder Carlos Beltran to free agency and the New York Yankees. Beltran provided a major presence for this club offensively and with his clubhouse presence.
But it isn't as though the Cardinals are going to be hurting in right field. Allen Craig would be a logical starter there, with Matt Adams taking over at first. The Cardinals' top position player prospect, Oscar Taveras, is the right fielder of the future, the only question being when the future is scheduled to begin.
So, the early offseason St. Louis scorecard reads: Useful players signed: three. Positions upgraded: at least two. And that brings us to news that is as good as any:
For all these additions and upgrades, the Cardinals sacrificed absolutely none of their wonderful young pitchers. They will enter the 2014 season with what appears to be a solid pitching surplus. Roughly 28 other clubs will be looking at them with envy. The other four clubs in the NL Central may also attempt to avert their eyes, at least during Spring Training.
So when Mozeliak describes his club as improved -- as he did this week -- there isn't room for even a minor quibble.
"As we look back over the last six weeks, we feel like we were able to improve this club," the general manager said. "A lot of times that's not easy to do when you've had the type of year that we've had. But we feel pretty good about moving forward."
That's the entire point of this exercise. We are still days short of the winter solstice and the St. Louis Cardinals, the best club in the National League of 2013, can legitimately declare that they have become better still. There is no one slipping into complacency in the St. Louis organization.