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Pitching remains Cards' biggest challenge

Tony La Russa is a manager, not a magician. He and his coaching staff (especially Dave Duncan) did their usual solid job to prepare the team, but the lack of pitching depth was a fatal flaw.


It wouldn't have taken a lot more pitching for this team to have contended as Albert Pujols, Ryan Ludwick, Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel (when healthy) had tremendous seasons. But rookie general manager John Mozeliak continued the tradition of St. Louis executives failing to make big moves.

Primary needs

Mozeliak had little choice but to sign Kyle Lohse to a four-year, $41 million extension. He faces a lot more work in improving the pitching depth. In addition to acquiring at least one starter, there's a glaring need for left-handed relief. The pitching situation was further complicated by Chris Carpenter's return to the surgical ward for his elbow.

Free agents

RHP Braden Looper, 2B Felipe Lopez, RF Juan Encarnacion, LHP Mark Mulder, RHP Jason Isringhausen, RHP Russ Springer, LHP Ron Villone, C Jason LaRue, SS Cesar Izturis.

The No. 1 guy on this list is probably Lopez, who seemed to jump-start his career after being acquired from Washington. He is looking for a multiyear contract and could sign elsewhere, however. With Lohse commanding a heavy price to return, it seems unlikely that the Cardinals can also keep Looper. Isringhausen, who has 293 career saves, is recovering from flexor tendon surgery but wants to play again. The Cardinals could bring him back on a provisional contract.

Trade bait

There is no Scott Rolen on the roster this winter. The Cardinals could probably get a lot for Ludwick or even Ankiel and might be tempted to consider offers with a number of intriguing outfielders in the wings, most notably Colby Rasmus.

Farm aid

Rasmus enjoyed a solid developmental year before being sidelined with a knee injury in July, which cost him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Outfielders Jon Jay and Daryl Jones are in line behind Rasmus, with Jay joining Ankiel and Rasmus with center-field skills. Duncan will have an attractive group of young pitchers to choose from, including potential starters Jaime Garcia, Mitchell Boggs and Jess Todd and relievers Chris Perez and Fernando Salas, both of whom are potential closers. Catcher Bryan Anderson, a left-handed hitter who was was the PCL's youngest regular last season, is rising quickly.

Outlook

Don't look for huge offseason moves. It is not this organization's style. But Mozeliak needs to find a way to add big league inventory to the clubhouse to give La Russa a fighting chance in 2009.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has its Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available in bookstores, through Amazon.com and by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).