It is difficult to make the argument that a team that won 97 games during the regular season and then reached the World Series is getting better.
But this is what the evidence that the St. Louis Cardinals present us says. The Cardinals have wrapped up their two most pressing needs and they have done so mere weeks into the 2013-14 offseason.
They needed upgrades at shortstop and center field, and they got them. In the trade with the Angels for Peter Bourjos, they received one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, possibly the best. Bourjos also brings a speed component, one of the few areas in which the 2013 Cardinals were short. With the signing of Jhonny Peralta, they acquired a shortstop who can hit.
They accomplished these two tasks without trading away any of their wonderfully talented young pitchers. They have strengthened themselves twice. They have weakened themselves not at all.
"There are still some opportunities for us over the next six, seven weeks as we progress to the Winter Meetings," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "But, if the clock stopped today, we'd be pretty happy with our club."
What was left on the other side of the argument was clearly visible, but it wasn't enough to warn the Cardinals off either of these moves. In the Bourjos trade, third baseman David Freese was sent to the Angels. Freese was a hometown hero in 2011, creating a storybook October, being named the MVP in both the NL Championship Series and the World Series. Despite a difficult 2013 season for Freese, Cardinals fans don't fit in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately category. Some of them are not at all happy that Freese was shipped out.
That move also will create an infield ripple effect. Matt Carpenter, who played so well after being shifted to second base, will return to a more familiar role at third. That will create room for prospect Kolten Wong, at second. Wong did not hit much in a brief stretch with the club this season, but the Cardinals obviously believe that he will.
The acquisition of Bourjos, meanwhile, gives the Cardinals a truly special defensive player in the outfield. If Bourjos does not become the regular center fielder, he will at the very least be a valuable fourth outfielder, providing depth and improved defense however he is used. If you wanted to find flaws with the 2013 Cardinals, outfield defense would have been high on the list. Bourjos will help immensely there and his presence will also diminish any need to rush top prospect Oscar Taveras. The way things go with the Cardinals, Taveras will be ready, anyway, but this is one more way in which Bourjos provides insurance.
Beefing up the offense at shortstop was a more difficult, or at least, more expensive proposition for the Cardinals. There is a shortage at this position and the alternative to buying more offense at short would have been trading some of the terrific pitching talent.
"We knew center field was very important, but the shortstop market on the other hand was one that was not deep in free agents," Mozeliak said. "There were really two being bantered about us. For us, it was really focusing on someone who could hit from the right side, somebody that was a steady defensive player, someone that had experience and could fit right in. We certainly explored the trade market at many levels, trying to see what we could do there, but the acquisition costs seemed very preventative for us to move forward with that.
"[Peralta] can play short and he has a very strong offensive skill set."
The Cardinals' deal with Peralta is for four years for $53 million. Defensively, Peralta is essentially an average Major League shortstop. He will not, for instance, remind Cardinals fans of Pete Kozma, a fine defensive shortstop. Had Kozma hit as well in 2013 as he did in 2012, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion.
An inescapable issue with Peralta is that he was suspended for 50 games this year for his connection to Biogenesis, the South Florida clinic that allegedly supplied performance-enhancing drugs to a number of athletes.
"Character and makeup are something we weigh into our decision-making," Mozeliak said. "In his case, he admitted what he did, he took responsibility for it. I feel like he has paid for his mistakes, and obviously if he were to make another one, then it would be a huge disappointment."
As a purely baseball matter, Peralta is 31, he can hit, and he has the versatility to play more than one position.
It is early, but the Cardinals seem to be 2-for-2 in addressing the two areas that needed to be addressed. Championships are not awarded during Thanksgiving week in this sport, but the Cardinals, the best team in the National League in 2013, now appear to be even better than that.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.