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The Strike Zone

Winter report card: St. Louis Cardinals

Chris Carpenter The Cardinals' crowded rotation should get a boost with the full-season availability of Chris Carpenter. (AP)

With just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.

St. Louis Cardinals

2012 Results: 88-74, 2n place in NL Central (Hot Stove Preview)

Key departures: 1B Lance Berkman, RHP Kyle McClellan, 2B/OF Skip Schumaker

Key arrivals: C Rob Johnson, IF Ronny Cedeno, LHP Randy Choate, IF/OF Ty Wigginton

You could be forgiven for wondering if general manager John Mozeliak has been in hibernation all winter, because the Cardinals' offseason activity has been so minimal in volume that the biggest addition has been the signing of a 37-year-old lefty specialist (Choate) to a three-year, $7.5 million deal. The reality is that with one of the game's top farm systems, the Cards have most of the resources they need to replenish from within, with only a few supplementary moves from outside the organization necessary to fill in the gaps.

Choate's arrival addresses the team's lack of a reliable lefthanded reliever, which was exposed during last year's postseason run, which ended with a Game 7 loss in the NLCS. Mark Rzepczynski wasn't able to live up to his late-2011 performance, and St. Louis relievers as a whole yielded a .255/.340/.375 line to opposing lefties. While that performance would have caused Tony La Russa to blanch, it's fair to note that Cards lefty relievers yielded a .236/.358/.441 line against lefties in 2011 en route to a world championship; then again, it was the woes of the more established Trever Miller and Arthur Rhodes which played a part in the Rzepper's acquisition and high-leverage deployment in the first place. In any case, Choate has smothered lefties at a .173/.240/.248 clip in 328 plate appearances over the past three seasons while delivering a 3.25 ERA and striking out 9.1 per nine overall during that span. Consider that need addressed.

Cedeno and Wigginton will provide bench support. Cedeno, who turns 30 on Feb. 2, signed a one-year, $1.15 million deal after hitting a strong .259/.332/.410 with the Mets in 2012, albeit in just 186 plate appearances. He'll back up at second base and shortstop, which assumes additional importance given the possibility that Rafael Furcal misses more time with the sprained ulnar collateral ligament that cost him all of September and October, to say nothing of the assorted maladies that have limited him to an average of 98 games over the past five seasons. Pete Kozma, who hit .333/.383/.569 in 82 PA for the Cardinals during the regular season and continued to come up big in October, has hit just .223/.286/.324 in 948 PA at Triple-A Memphis over the past two seasons, suggesting that pitchers are likely to catch up to him soon, making him a less than perfect solution. Wigginton, 35, signed a two-year, $5 million deal coming off a season in which he hit .235/.314/.375 with 11 homers for the Phillies in 360 PA; he'll back up at the infield corners and perhaps in leftfield as well, work that would go to Matt Carpenter if not for his experiment at second base (more on that below).

Speaking of Carpenters, the biggest impact on St. Louis' chances at a playoff spot and more would be the full-season availability of Chris Carpenter, who was limited to three regular season starts and three postseason ones in 2012 due to what was finally discovered to be thoracic outlet syndrome. Thought to be out for the season after surgery on July 19, he made a stunningly quick recovery and showed no ill effects within the limited sample size of his return. That said, if he's not up to a full workload, the Cardinals have a wealth of pitching depth to draw upon, with 22-year-old top prospect Shelby Miller, 22-year-old rookie Trevor Rosenthal and 24-year-old Joe Kelly able to step in behind Adam Wainwright, Jaime Garcia (who has shoulder concerns of his own entering the year), Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn.

Unfinished business: Second chance? Last season, 26-year-old rookie Matt Carpenter hit a potent .294/.365/.463 with six homers in 340 PA while filling in at the infield and outfield corners, far better than the .240/.309/.363 showing St. Louis got from second basemen Daniel Descalso, Tyler Greene and the departed Schumaker (who was traded to the Dodgers for minor league infielder Jake Lemmerman). Carpenter didn't embarrass while spotting at second base for a total of 18 innings late in the season, his first professional experience at the position, so the team instructed him to undertake a crash course over the winter and come to spring training ready to compete for the job. If he can hold his own, he'll provide additional lineup depth to a team that ranked second in the league in scoring, though he'll likely have a defensive caddy at times; the Cardinals have ample potential partners with whom they can pair him. Longer term, 22-year-old prospect Kolten Wong, a 2011 first-round pick who spent last year at Double-A, is likely to take over the position, but for now, St. Louis' resourcefulness is intriguing.

Preliminary grade: B-. For as short as the Cardinals' winter checklist may be, the old adage "If you're not getting better, you're getting worse," may apply; one can't simply bank on players reeling off carbon copies of last season to produce another contender. Still, St. Louis has addressed one glaring need from outside, offered an innovative solution to another one and has the resources to fill most of its other needs from within, so the bet here is that the Cardinals will be right in the thick of the playoff races.

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