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NL champions have holes to fill as free agency looms

Cardinals have exclusive negotiating window with Beltran until late Monday night

BOSTON -- While the Cardinals were immersed in their World Series ride, general manager John Mozeliak did not neglect to prepare for the reality that was right around the corner. The end of the season was imminent -- though it did end a day earlier than the club desired -- and with that, the offseason has been ushered in.

Before he could properly reflect on this past season, Mozeliak had to turn his attention to 2014.

"Over the last few days, we've talked a lot about this club, but we've also talked a lot about the future," Mozeliak said after the Cardinals' 6-1 season-ending loss to the Red Sox in Game 6 on Wednesday. "Where my head is right now, I've already somewhat turned the page as far as already thinking about what we need to do for next year. Next week, free agency opens, so you have to be prepared."

Though the National League champs have a promising core already intact and several young players on the rise, the Cards are not immune from having holes to fill and questions to answer before Spring Training opens in a little more than three months.

Free agency will begin in full at 10:59 p.m. CT on Monday, when teams are allowed to begin talking to players who are on the open market. On Thursday, 147 players declared free agency, including four Cardinals: Chris Carpenter, Rafael Furcal, Edward Mujica and Carlos Beltran.

Furcal is not expected to draw interest from the Cards, and Carpenter is poised to retire. Mujica provided exceptional value for his $3.2 million salary in 2013 when he slid into the closer role for the majority of the season. But he ended the season fatigued, and if the right-hander is going to get paid closer money, he'll price himself out of St. Louis.

Beltran represents the most intriguing case. The Cardinals got the desired production out of Beltran's two-year, $26 million deal, but those numbers and Beltran's relatively clean bill of health should help him command multiyear offers from other clubs this winter. The Cards, who have Oscar Taveras on the rise and Allen Craig and Matt Adams already in place, seem hesitant to match that sort of commitment.

The organization has an exclusive negotiating window with Beltran until late Monday night, and also must decide by that point if it wants to make him a one-year, qualifying offer of $14.1 million. If the Cardinals do so, they position themselves to secure a compensation Draft pick if Beltran walks away.

Jake Westbrook will join the free-agent ranks as well, as the Cards declined his $9.5 million mutual option for 2014 on Thursday. The veteran right-hander will receive a $1 million buyout.

In a little more detail, here's a look at what's in store for the Cardinals this Hot Stove season:

Contract issues

Free agents: Chris Carpenter, RHP; Edward Mujica, RHP; Jake Westbrook, RHP; Rafael Furcal, SS; Carlos Beltran OF

Eligible for arbitration: John Axford, RHP; David Freese, 3B; Rob Johnson, C; Jon Jay OF; Fernando Salas, RHP; Daniel Descalso, INF

Non-tender possibilities: Axford, Johnson, Salas

Areas of need

Shortstop: This was undoubtedly the Cardinals' biggest hole in 2013, and they have no obvious answers as to how better fill it from within. Pete Kozma has proven himself an above-average shortstop, but in his first full season in the Majors, his bat never came along. The Cards would like to prioritize defense at the position, but they still need more production than Kozma provided. Descalso filled in capably, though St. Louis would prefer to keep him as a utility infielder. Look for the club consider trade options (Troy Tulowitzki, perhaps?) and free agents to provide an upgrade.

Center field: The Cardinals may not look outside for center field help, but that's not to say that they are set on having Jay continue to start at the position. Jay had, at best, a so-so season for St. Louis. His offensive production waned, and his defense was far from stellar. With top prospect Taveras on the cusp of the Majors, the Cards (depending upon the rest of their roster construction) could consider starting the season with Taveras, instead of Jay, in center.

Third base: Like the center-field situation, this is not a position that is likely to have the Cardinals scouring the free-agent or trade markets for help. However, it is uncertain who will open the season as the starting third baseman. With Freese's salary about to escalate again through arbitration, St. Louis may float him as a trade chip this offseason. Because Matt Carpenter is available to move back to the hot corner, the Cards have some flexibility with how they piece together their infielders.

2014 payroll

St. Louis played 2013 with a payroll of approximately $116 million. More than a third of that was tied up in five players who are (or will soon be) free agents: Beltran ($13 million), Carpenter ($12.5 million), Westbrook ($8.75 million), Furcal ($7 million) and Mujica ($3.2 million).

With all that money coming off the books, and a limited number of arbitration cases expected, the Cardinals will have plenty of financial flexibility this offseason. It seems likely that their payroll will actually drop in 2014, though that will be merely a product of the team having so many young players. The good news for the Cards is that if they want to make a surprise splash for a pricey offseason acquisition, they should have the money to make it possible.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.

St. Louis Cardinals, Carlos Beltran, Chris Carpenter, Rafael Furcal, Edward Mujica, Jake Westbrook