The St. Louis Cardinals entered the offseason with a shopping list that includes a shortstop and a left-handed relief pitcher. Unfortunately, those are currently two of the most talent-thin positions in Major League Baseball.
The Cardinals’ regular shortstop for the 2012 season, Rafael Furcal, hit .264 and had an on-base percentage of .325 in 121 games before he tore an elbow ligament that ended his season. Those certainly aren’t terrific numbers, but he ranked 11th in baseball in batting average and eighth in on-base percentage. He also played his typically solid defense throughout the season.
Furcal expects to be healthy by Opening Day, so the Cardinals will have to either be satisfied with his production, take a chance that late-season star Pete Kozma will continue his remarkable play or try and find an upgrade elsewhere.
Various rumors say the Cardinals are interested in Cleveland Indians’ shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who ranked eighth in batting average and fifth in on-base percentage last season. That could be an option, but the Cardinals would likely have to part with at least two young pitchers and a position player.
That’s a high price to pay when the team already has serviceable players on its roster, especially when the list of above-average shortstops who might be available is likely limited to Cabrera and Texas Rangers’ shortstop Elvis Andrus.
The biggest problem is simply a shortage of very good shortstops. Cabrera and Andrus have spots in most top-five lists of shortstops, along with Derek Jeter, Troy Tulowitski and Jose Reyes. Starlin Castro would also receive consideration.
The next tier might include a veteran player such as Jimmy Rollins or a young player such as Alcides Escobar who has played well for a year or two, but has yet to establish themselves as a consistent all-star caliber player.
The lack of supply at the shortstop position also means demand is high, which could cost the Cardinals dearly in terms of young players and prospects if they make a move for a shortstop this offseason.
Pitching, particularly hard-throwing, young pitching, is currently a position of strength for the Cardinals, except for left-handed relievers.
Although there aren’t many high-quality shortstops currently roaming infields at big-league stadiums, there might be fewer left-handed relievers.
The Cardinals have lefty Marc Rzepczynski in their bullpen, but he had a 4.24 ERA last season and certainly can’t carry the load alone, as the Cardinals found out in the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants when Rzepczynski posted a 6. 75 ERA and the Giants faced right-handers when Rzepczynski wasn’t available.
But, the same problem faces the Cardinals for left-handed relievers as it does for shortstops. There aren’t many available, especially at a relatively moderate price.
Left-handed reliever Jeremy Affeldt recently signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Giants, and the best options in free agency are pitchers such as Brian Fuentes, Will Ohman and Wesley Wright.
Those aren’t exactly household names. While that isn’t a requirement for the position, the Cardinals would be foolish to think they would be much better off heading into the 2013 season with one of those pitchers as their second left-handed option in the bullpen.
Rumors also link the Cardinals to non-tendered pitcher Tom Gorzelanny, who threw well for the Washington Nationals last year, posting a 2.88 ERA in 46 innings. Gorzelanny could be a better option, but he is sure to draw interest from several teams and command a fairly high price given the weak market at the position.
Fans can yearn for the Cardinals to make moves to address both positions, but there just isn’t much talent in stock at either spot.
Thankfully, a better shortstop or left-handed reliever isn’t going to determine whether or not the Cardinals will be good next season. The Cardinals have enough talent to be a good team, but those spots could be important factors when the team has to beat other playoff-caliber teams late in the season or the playoffs.
But given the current market at those spots, many other teams could be in similar positions.