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WHEELER: Cardinals Offseason Challenges Heading Into ’14

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BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 24: Carlos Beltran #3 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits an RBI single in the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox during Game Two of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park on October 24, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

BOSTON, MA – OCTOBER 24: Carlos Beltran #3 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits an RBI single in the seventh inning against the Boston Red Sox during Game Two of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park on October 24, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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It’s good to be the Cardinals.

Maybe it’s not as much fun these past couple of days following the Game 6 loss in Boston but that frustration will wane and eventually excitement about 2014 will kick in full force.

Despite the maddening finish to their World Series run, the Cardinals have a bright future and a potentially dynamic offseason ahead.

Over the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about what issues the Cardinals have to face before they report to Jupiter in 3 1/2 months. Here’s what I’ve come up with…

1) Carlos Beltran

He’s already filed for free agency and both he and the team face interesting choices. Beltran loves it here and really enjoys being a Cardinal and the team loves everything he brings to the table, not the least of which is a powerful switch-hitting presence.

He wants to play three more years and it seems unlikely he’d want to go through free agency again before calling it a career. Do the Cardinals want to commit more than a year (perhaps the $14 million tender offer) when they have young sluggers (Matt Adams, Oscar Taveras) who need playing time? Does Beltran want to come back to St. Louis if he’s going to have to give up more playing time to accommodate players like them?

It’s hard to tell now. I’d put his chances of being back at 50-50…at best. If someone like the Yankees comes calling and offering a 3-year deal, easy to do when you have the DH, he would have a hard time saying no, in my opinion.

2) Shortstop

First of all, the Cardinals proved that they can win 97 games and advance deep into the World Series with Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso playing shortstop. If they don’t address the position this offseason it would be a surprise but certainly not a disaster.

That said, most people who cover the team think that shortstop will be a significant priority. If you’re looking for a blockbuster, forget Troy Tulowitzki. Rockies owner Charlie Monfort told Troy Renck of the Denver Post that he’s not trading Tulowitzki or Carlos Gonzalez this offseason.

The free agent market is thin, as you would expect. Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta will be the top names available. Drew is expected to receive the 1-year tender from the Red Sox which means he will cost you a 1st round draft pick and tens of millions of dollars. Peralta shouldn’t be too pricey and he can definitely hit but he has very limited range at shortstop and is coming off a 50-game PED suspension. Not exactly attractive, especially for a team that is looking for defense from the shortstop position.

There are plenty of potential trade targets out there but keep in mind that most teams who have good shortstops want to keep them. One player who intrigues me – and I have no idea whether or not he intrigues the Cardinals – is Didi Gregorius of Arizona. His 2013 numbers don’t blow you away (.252, .704 OPS and 26 extra base hits in 103 games) but he’s an outstanding defensive player and he has offensive potential. Their former hitting coach, Don Baylor, told me in an interview this season that he’s got the ability to be much better offensively. He’s 23 years-old and I think he’s capable of .275-280 with 12-15 home runs in a full season (his ’13 HR pace would have him at 11 HR with a full season of at-bats).

Is Gregorius available? Great question. My answer to that is “probably, if the price is right.” The Diamondbacks also have an up-and-coming shortstop prospect named Chris Owings who was named the Triple-A Pacific Coast League MVP after hitting .330 with 31 doubles, 8 triples, 12 home runs and 81 RBI for Reno. His presence could free the team up to seek pitching in a deal for Gregorius. Heck, maybe Owings, a 1st round pick out of high school in 2009, is the better trade target. All I know is they have two shortstops in Arizona who can play.

That doesn’t mean the Cardinals see things the same way I do, nor does it mean these are the best deals available. I’m just thinking out loud. There are plenty of possible deals to be made depending on what you’re willing to give up.

3) Second base – Third base

This essentially comes down to whether or not the Cardinals think Kolten Wong is a better everyday choice than David Freese, who is eligible for arbitration again.

I think Freese will be back but will have to earn playing time beginning in Spring Training with Wong providing competition and Matt Carpenter providing flexibility. In a perfect world you have both players in the Majors next year and you rotate much like you did with 1B-RF this season.

Wong is a player. I don’t care what he did in limited, inconsistent playing time at the Major League level. He will hit for average, he will get on base, he has some extra base pop and he’ll steal some bases. No doubt in my mind. The kid is going to be a player.

4) Who makes up the starting rotation?

Well, right now the Cardinals have six established starters: Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Michael Waca, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia (who is already throwing live BP).

Someone in that group could be dealt, or perhaps sent to the bullpen, but that’s not even all they have in terms of competition.

Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez, Tyler Lyons, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal were all starters in the minors and all seem to have hopes of starting in the Majors too. And that doesn’t even count prospects Tim Cooney, Tyrell Jenkins or Marco Gonzales for the long term.

It’s easy to see that a couple of these guys could be moved to fill other needs, especially shortstop, though it’s not a guarantee. The Cardinals love having this pitching depth.

There is more to digest here but for now that will have to do.

Th Hot Stove season will be fun as the Cardinals continue to deal from a position of strength moving into the future.

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