ST. LOUIS — A left-handed reliever, bench depth and a backup infielder are among the St. Louis Cardinals' needs as teams convene in Nashville, Tenn., this week for the winter meetings.
But Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said he's under no immediate pressure to complete his wish list by the time the meetings conclude Thursday.
"I think back to last year's winter meetings, and the expectations and pressure (because) of all the different things going on were much higher than going down to Nashville this year," Mozeliak said, referring to what was then the unresolved status of free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols.
"Even though there are less expectations in that regard," he said, "we still want to make sure we're prepared and able to act should we see a deal that makes sense for us."
Mozeliak said he has spent the last few weeks evaluating free agents, talking to their representatives and exploring possible trade options with other general managers.
Mozeliak called it "business as usual in the sense that we're looking how we can improve this club."
"We've certainly been talking with a lot of different clubs as far as trade goes and a lot of different agents (with clients) on the free-agent market," Mozeliak said. "But candidly, our needs are not like they have been in the past. So as we look to improve the team, we can be a little more selective and a little more patient."
The Cardinals can be selective, Mozeliak said, because it's only December. It's a far different landscape than when clubs are scrambling to add a significant player to their roster ahead of the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline.
"There's always a lot of trade talk," Mozeliak said. "This is the time of year you try to explore a lot of different things.
"Having said that, the difference between now and the trading deadline is there is no deadline. You're never feeling quite the same pressure to just have to conclude a deal. You can really kind of search out and try to do things you think are best for your club."
The Cardinals had just one left-handed reliever, Marc Rzepczynski, on their roster from Opening Day until the final game of the postseason.
It wasn't from a lack of trying, however. They signed veteran J.C. Romero in the offseason, but he was released in May. From that point, the Cardinals tried Sam Freeman, Barret Browning and Brian Fuentes. Only Freeman is still with the club.
Freeman, however, is not viewed as the future complement to Rzepczynski, who had a 6.86 ERA in 29 games in May and June before compiling a 2.77 ERA in 23 games in August and September.
The Cardinals have options in the left-handed reliever market. Mozeliak doesn't yet know whether the need will be filled via trade or free agency.
"I don't know," he said. "Even if I knew, I'm not telling you. That's not how we (do things). We'll find out in time. Our job is to explore all the options."
Free agent Sean Burnett, who has spent the last three-plus seasons with the Washington Nationals, could be the Cardinals' top target. Burnett was 1-2 with a 2.38 ERA in 70 games last season.
The price to land Burnett, 30, likely will be high, considering the market for pitchers of his ilk. Jeremy Affeldt, for example, signed a three-year, $18 million contract in mid-November to remain with the San Francisco Giants. Affeldt is three years older than Burnett.
"We definitely want to end up with another reliever, but we don't feel like there's a timetable where we have to have something done by the time we leave on Thursday," Mozeliak said. "There's going to be a lot of opportunity. Not all of these players are going to be signed by Friday, so there's plenty of time to prepare your club.
"We've never been an organization that looks at winning the winter means winning the summer."
Mozeliak said the Cardinals are willing to sign a left-handed reliever to a multiyear contract.
"I'm not opposed to that," said Mozeliak, dismissing a notion that the Cardinals would not be willing to make a big commitment in time and money to fix the left side of their bullpen. "I don't know where that rumor started. It's been sort of a hot-button topic over the last week. We're willing to do a multiyear."
Less-expensive options in free agency include Randy Choate, 37, Mike Gonzalez, 34, and J.P. Howell, 29. Howell could possess the highest upside, given his age and success against left-handed hitters (.200 average last season).
Clearly, Mozeliak doesn't plan to go through another season without a second lefty option in the bullpen for manager Mike Matheny, and he believes it also would allow Rzepczynski to slip back into a more normal role.
"I think he would benefit," Mozeliak said. "It's tough when you're the lone guy. But I also think it would help our club in general because the manager is not left with just one bullet to use."
Mozeliak reiterated that the ligament in shortstop Rafael Furcal's right elbow has healed.
"Right now, he feels like he's going to good to go, so we're excited about that," Mozeliak said.
But the Cardinals might be looking outside the organization for a player to protect them in case Furcal experiences a setback, and to provide a pinch-hitting threat. San Francisco's Marco Scutaro is a free agent, but he's 37 and likely seeking significant dollars.
St. Louis pinch-hitters batted just .190 (46-for-242) with one home run and 80 strikeouts last season. An outfielder, perhaps Scott Hairston, Reed Johnson or Nate McLouth, could be serviceable and provide insurance for Carlos Beltran and his knee problems.
"It's all about being opportunistic," Mozeliak said. "Trying to label it today is not beneficial. We will go into it open-minded and if we think there's a way to get better, we'll pursue it.
"Obviously, you're starting to see some momentum. So I would have expectations that there are a lot of players that are hopeful to have deals done by the time the meetings conclude."
Mozeliak said he and other general managers are ambivalent about the winter meetings.
"It's a lot of work," he said. "I don't think any GM or front-office person truly loves the experience because it's long days and there's not a lot of free time. It's hard to take a moment to relax.
"But it's part of our business and it happens once a year. Getting baseball back on the front page is a good thing."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.