Last year when the Cardinals front office types arrived at the winter meetings the stakes were high.
Albert Pujols was drawing offers from the Marlins, Angels and perhaps even the Cubs, we were told and the Birds were at the most significant crossroads in franchise history -- at least as far as the club's roster was concerned.
It was heart wrenching for a lot of fans to see Albert Pujols defect to the American League. But, a year and a National League Championship Series appearance later, the Cardinals come to the winter swap meet with a much shorter and less dramatic shopping list.
The team is set everyplace but one -- the bullpen. So the task is obvious. Let's just hope that, unlike in recent years, the Cardinals don't go dumpster diving for relievers, building a solid home on a foundation of shifting sand.
While they made it to the post season for the second time in a row after a major, mid-season overhaul, the Birds could have better secured a playoff berth both in 2011 and 2012 by not giving away a dozen or so games each season in bullpen meltdowns. I'm not trying to diminish the fact that the Cardinals made it to the post season. But it required nearly miraculous circumstances both times. So can't they make it a little bit easier on themselves in 2013?
Simply put, the Cardinals need to resolve the need for a reliable bullpen lefty who can work out of a jam -- not create one. Marc Rzepczynski had an awful year and, while I don't think we've reached the point where the Redbirds should give up on him, it would be a mistake to count on him as your only bullpen southpaw.
Those sorts of guys come at a premium. But the club doesn't need a stud lefty AND a slugging first baseman and a front end starter. It just needs the stud bullpenner so the slugging first baseman and the co-aces at the top of the rotation aren't doing their good deeds in vain.
Failure to improve the left side of the bullpen is not an option. Even if it means to overpay by a little bit. While a bullpen lefty is someone who can command a decent paycheck, it's not a bank breaking roster spot. So if they give a guy $10 million for two years instead of $8 million, it's not the end of the world -- especially if the hurler does his job as expected. If the Birds can't find a guy on the free agent market -- and there are a few desirable choices out there including Sean Burnett, Mike Gonzalez and J.P Howell -- they need to deal wisely from their surplus of prospects to try to find someone on the trade market.
It's a shame to see a club that scores like the Cardinals lose games time after time because the bullpen can't hold a three or four-run lead in the late innings. Additions of young pitchers like Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal have done a lot of secure the right side of the pen. But, as we saw in the 2012 playoffs, the left side still leaves too much to be desired.