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Returning core will serve Cardinals well in 2014

ST. LOUIS -- Amid the sting of a Game 6 World Series loss in Boston, several players in the Cardinals' locker room were able to look around and gaze ahead. Twenty-two members of the 25-man World Series roster are returning in 2014, a sound sign that the club has a firm core that should help it remain perennial contenders.

That reality, though, does not have the organization entering the offseason satisfied.

"Clearly, falling two games short of a World [Series] championship, you don't feel like you're too far away," general manager John Mozeliak said. "But you don't want to sit on your back and be complacent and do nothing, either. I think everybody in [the media] has their opinions on where we could get better, and I would imagine they're not that far off from the way we're thinking about it [in the front office].

"It's a lot of 'Yes, we can identify what we need to do.' Now the question is, can we go out and actually implement it and get it done? That will be what determines the next [few] months."

As the Cardinals look to improve for 2014, their efforts start with the offense. Though the 2013 team set a mark for average with runners in scoring position (.330), Mozeliak notes that it is irrational to expect such success to be sustained for the long term. That's why he intends to spend this winter looking to upgrade the offense.

Shortstop is the obvious place to begin, and the Cardinals will be aggressive in scouring the free-agent and trade markets for a shortstop who can be more of a threat in the lineup than Pete Kozma or Daniel Descalso were this season.

The organization's preference would be to tap into its financial flexibility (and there is plenty of it) and fill holes through free agency. Going the trade route is an option, but one that would cost the organization pieces of its core.

"I'm a little hesitant to just go down that [trade] path, because as we learned this year so quickly, injuries happen," Mozeliak said. "And the depth allowed us to have the success that we had this year. And going into 2014, I look at our depth as our strength. By just flipping it to flip may answer a problem that we've identified or be a way we could improve, but it would certainly thin us out."

The Cardinals will lean on their flexibility as they look to improve their offense in other ways. The fact that two of their core players -- Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter -- can move around defensively will allow the Cardinals to be creative in constructing their lineup. Mozeliak said, too, this week that he would like to see what sort of numbers Matt Adams could put up with a full season of at-bats. That would indicate that the Cardinals intend to open the season with Adams at first base and Craig in right field.

Center field and third base are two other areas in which the Cardinals are seeking improved results, though that doesn't mean either will be filled by an outside acquisition. The organization is not ready to rule out David Freese as a bounceback candidate, and the Cards can always slide Carpenter over to third if they want to get Kolten Wong in the lineup every day.

The impending arrival of top prospect Oscar Taveras makes the center-field situation one that could be addressed internally, too.

"Any time you can approach the offseason with flexibility, you're in a good spot," Mozeliak said. "I think the good news about this club is [Yadier Molina], you can put in ink. [Matt] Holliday is in ink. And for the most part, you're going to have Craig and Adams somewhere, and Matt Carpenter is on this team. But in terms of how we look at things, flexibility is going to be what we sort of ride for the next few months.

"I really feel we're in a good spot. Our core is in place. But we have to find those right additions if we can."

So with the free-agent market now open and the offseason in full swing, following is a position-by-position look at where the roster stands going into 2014.

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

Eligible for arbitration: John Axford, RHP; Freese, 3B; Jon Jay, OF; Fernando Salas, RHP; Descalso, IF

Non-tender possibilities: Axford, Salas

For all the roster questions going into 2014, this is not one of them. With the game's best catcher locked up through at least 2017, the Cardinals have ensured that this will remain a position of stability. Molina is coming off another stellar season, one in which he won his sixth straight Gold Glove Award, earned his fifth consecutive All-Star selection and positioned himself for a top finish in MVP voting. Despite fighting discomfort in his knee during the summer, Molina led all National League catchers in innings caught. Tony Cruz will return as his backup.

This position has some fluidity, but the Cardinals see that as a luxury. Craig will remain at first if the Cardinals do not need to shift him to right field. Such a move would open a starting spot for Adams, who did well filling in during Craig's seven-week absence. The Cardinals are interested to see Adams' production with a full season of at-bats, and this could be their opportunity.

In 2013, the Cardinals received above-average production at first base (106 RBIs, .282 average, 86 runs, 30 doubles and 22 home runs) from Craig and Adams. It should be a position of strength moving forward.

This position, too, is flexible, and dependent upon the Cardinals' offseason activity. Carpenter thrived in his first season as a second baseman, and he gives the Cardinals a strong option there for many years. But his roots are at third base, and the Cardinals will consider shifting him back to his natural position. If St. Louis makes this switch, that would open second base for Wong, one of the organization's top position-player prospects. Wong did not have a strong offensive debut during his time with the big league club in 2013, but the Cardinals believe that his Minor League numbers are an indication of future Major League success.

Consider this the No. 1 need for the Cardinals, who did not receive sufficient offensive production from their shortstops in 2013. Kozma was one of the team's best defensive players, but his bat lagged significantly. Descalso, who started 48 games at the position and will also return next year, provided a little more offense but was not as strong defensively as Kozma. The Cardinals will look at the options available via free agency and the trade market. They want to increase the offensive production from the position while also ensuring that it remains a point of strength defensively.

Freese is coming off a disappointing year, and that leads to some questions about how the Cardinals will cover third base in 2014. Freese is arbitration-eligible for a second time and is expected to command a salary between $4 million and $5 million through that process. If the Cardinals believe that he is poised for a comeback, they may open the season with him as their starting third baseman. The other option is to shift Carpenter to third base and therefore open a spot for Wong on the other side of the infield.

Holliday is set in left field, but that is the only assurance the Cardinals have in their outfield three months out from Spring Training. The Cardinals made veteran right fielder Beltran a qualifying offer of $14.1 million for one year, but they do not expect him to accept. If that is the case, the Cardinals are not expected to make a serious play at signing him to a multiyear deal. That's because they have Craig as a right-field option and Taveras to consider.

Taveras, who is recovering well from ankle surgery, could also be an option in center field if the Cardinals feel he is ready for that challenge. Jay will still be available, as well, if the Cardinals choose not to try Taveras in center. Shane Robinson is expected to remain as a reserve outfielder.

This is an area where the Cardinals can boast of depth. Ace Adam Wainwright signed an extension in March that ensured he will be a part of the rotation for the next five years. Left-hander Jaime Garcia is nearly recovered from shoulder surgery and should have no limitations come Spring Training. Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller each won 15 games as starters in 2013 and are key pieces of the young core. Michael Wacha showed in October that he belongs permanently in the rotation. Joe Kelly was the most consistent starter of the second half. And then there is Carlos Martinez, another exciting young arm the Cardinals envision as a long-term fit. The Cardinals will not have starting jobs for all seven of them, though it's a logjam they welcome.

The Cardinals have their closer, Trevor Rosenthal, and hope to get another one back shortly after the season starts. Jason Motte, whose 2013 season was lost due to Tommy John surgery, believes he'll be ready to return in May. Randy Choate will return as a lefty specialist, and young relievers Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness should again have places in the 'pen. After the Cardinals fill the rotation, those who don't earn a spot will be considered for bullpen roles, too. The Cardinals have not closed the door on bringing back Axford or Mujica, though the price would have to be right. Sam Freeman's strong season should also have him in the mix for a roster spot.

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

St. Louis Cardinals