The Cardinals head into December with relatively few holes to fill in their roster — the outfield, corner infielders, catcher, starting rotation, and bullpen will most likely look very similar in 2013 as it did last season. However, two positions that the Cards should seek to upgrade through free agency are second base and shortstop. After Rafael Furcal went down with an arm injury, prospect Pete Kozma filled in admirably at shortstop, exceeding expectations with solid defense and multiple clutch hits in the Cards’ playoff run. His double-play partner Daniel Descalso struggled with the glove and at the plate for most of 2012, but did come on strong in October after moving to second base. While Descalso and Kozma should be applauded for their contributions, especially because the Cards did not anticipate using either in more than a bench role, General Manager John Mozeliak should consider bringing in free agent veterans to fill those spots in 2013.
There are multiple affordable veterans available to Mozeliak, including Jason Bartlett or Alex Gonzalez at short and Kelly Johnson or Ryan Theriot at second. Bartlett and Gonzalez are experienced, reliable fielders who will certainly demand less money than Steven Drew while providing more of an offensive threat than Ronny Cedeno or Yuniesky Betancourt. While both Bartlett and Gonzalez had injury-plagued 2012 seasons, their career resumes are superior to Kozma’s and said injuries will certainly reduce their asking price. Bartlett gets on base — he posted OBPs of .329, .389, and .324 for the Rays before moving to pitcher-friendly Petco Park two seasons ago — and has playoff experience with Minnesota and Tampa Bay. Gonzalez is extremely experienced (13 big league seasons) and contributed a staggering 3.8 defensive wins above replacement in 2010, followed by 1.8 defensive wins above replacement in ’11, which means that the Cards would be significantly improved defensively.
Johnson has power for a second baseman and Theriot is a versatile infielder coming off a World Series championship with the Giants; either can be signed for less than playoff star Marco Scutaro while being less of an injury risk than the talented but fragile Freddy Sanchez. Johnson hit 26 bombs with a .370 OBP in 2010 and hit 21 homers in ’11 before falling to just 16 homers last season. However, he is just 30 years old and would provide a legitimate threat at the bottom of the order. Theriot can play any infield position and has hit at least .270 with at least a .316 OBP in each of the last five seasons. Again, the Cards do not need a world-beater at second base, and Theriot would be a versatile, durable, and reliable option.
The point is that Mozeliak shouldn’t break the bank for a middle infielder when the rest of the roster is already full of talent — the Cards don’t necessarily need a difference-maker at either second or short. However, signing an established veteran like Bartlett, Gonzalez, Johnson, or Theriot will stabilize the middle infield at a reasonable price. This is not to say that Descalso or Kozma performed inadequately, but rather that Mozeliak has an opportunity to upgrade a relative weakness in the Cards roster with little risk involved.