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Cardinals will seek upgrades in free-agent market

ST. LOUIS -- A year after engaging in the largest free-agent negotiation in franchise history, the Cardinals are in for a much quieter offseason. That does not, however, signal a silent one.

Though the Cardinals will retain the core of a 2012 club that advanced to within one game of a World Series return, general manager John Mozeliak does not intend to stay pat.

"I think our team, as a whole, is set up to still be successful," Mozeliak said three days after the Redbirds' Game 7 loss in the National League Championship Series.

"I think the one thing we don't want to do is get into a situation where we're not aggressive, or we're not thinking about how we can get better. I think back to all the years I've been with the Cardinals, and there are always times when you wonder if you could have done more. I want to challenge the group upstairs to look at creative and innovative ways to try to get this team better."

The holes are not glaring, given that the only two expected losses will be Lance Berkman, who hardly had a chance to contribute in 2012, and Kyle Lohse, whose departure the Cards hope can be covered by a rising group of young starters.

The team's starting outfield remains intact. The corner infield and catching positions won't change, either. There is some fluidity with the middle infield spots, and the bullpen could be improved with some left-handed help. The rotation returns plenty of capable starting options.

But while the Cards already appear set up for a strong 2013 campaign, Mozeliak intends to eye potential upgrades. The Cardinals aren't expected to be actively involved in pursuing the top tier of free agents, but the club could deal from an area of depth or increase position competition by bringing in additional depth options.

Players can start signing with other clubs after 11 p.m. CT on Friday.

Here's a look at what's in store for the Cardinals this Hot Stove season:

Contract issues

Free agents: 1B Berkman, RHP Lohse

Eligible for arbitration: RHP Kyle McClellan, RHP Jason Motte, RHP Edward Mujica, 3B David Freese, RHP Mitchell Boggs, LHP Marc Rzepczynski

Club options: None

Non-tender possibilities: McClellan, Rzepczynski

Areas of need

Middle Infield: This is not an area where the Cardinals will have to add out of desperation, but it is a spot where upgrades will be sought. If Rafael Furcal recovers fully from a late-season elbow injury, he'll return as the team's starting shortstop. If issues persist, however, the Cardinals could be in a bind. There's Pete Kozma, of course, but assuming that a small sample size of success in 2012 will translate into a long-term stay is a gamble. If the Cardinals want additional cushion, they could look to bring in a versatile middle infielder from the outside.

Doing so could also address second base, a position that saw little continuity until the end of the season. The Cardinals will have options in 2013, but the question is whether there are better options externally. Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker will return, though Schumaker is unlikely to be a regular fit at second. There's Kozma, too, and ascending top Draft pick Kolten Wong, though he may not be ready at the start of the year. There's also a wild card in Matt Carpenter, who has been told to work at the position on his own this offseason.

Left-handed relief: After a season in which the club lacked reliable lefty relief, Mozeliak noted that this is on the "short list of things to look at" during the offseason. The Cardinals first have to decide whether to tender a contract to Rzepczynski, who will be due a raise because he's arbitration eligible. Sam Freeman gives the Cardinals another internal option, though the depth ends there. Don't plan on seeing the Cards spend big bucks to address this area, but Mozeliak will bring in other southpaws to at least compete for jobs in Spring Training.

Bench: The Cardinals' bench was a weakness in 2012, though that was partly because injuries depleted the Major League depth. In particular, the club could use a right-handed-hitting power threat.

2013 payroll

St. Louis will shed nearly $24 million by parting ways with Lohse and Berkman, but the club is already on the hook to add $17.5 million with contract increases due Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Jaime Garcia and Furcal. That doesn't account for raises that will also come through the arbitration process. But since the Cardinals are unlikely to pursue the top group of free agents, the organization's 2013 payroll isn't likely to be that different from the $110 million spent this year.

Lance Berkman, Kyle Lohse