Defending a pennant and with money to spend, the Cardinals, you'd think, have it made. They're the model organization, a reliable contender, well-stocked with young talent -- and they really need to come up with an alternative to Pete Kozma at shortstop. Between his .548 OPS and defense that isn't game-alteringly excellent, he's hard to warm up to as anything better than an injury replacement to your regular. And after doing just that last season, filling in for oft-injured Rafael Furcal, it's time to find a better answer.
So let's say the slate is clean. What are the Cardinals' options at shortstop?
Sign me up!: The free-agent market isn't replete with great choices. Jhonny Peralta is the class of the field after putting up an .815 OPS for the Tigers around his PED suspension, but after a year afield which Baseball Info Solutions' Plus-Minus graded him at zero and UZR rated him just slightly positive, we're talking about a guy who might not be a perfect fit over the length of the three-year deal he's looking for. Add in the expectation that he'll run you eight figures per annum.
Is Peralta in reach? Absolutely, if the Cardinals decide he's to their taste, yes. Between Chris Carpenter's retirement and having multiple free agents, GM John Mozeliak has almost $28 million back in the till relative to the Cards' 2013 payroll, with just David Freese likely to take a noteworthy bite out of that via arbitration. So spending money with a talented young pitching staff already in place seems doable. The opportunity cost of signing Peralta is that it would probably preclude re-signing or replacing Carlos Beltran. Even that seems doable -- Allen Craig moves over to right field full time (at least until top prospect Oscar Taveras arrives), leaving Matt Adams alone at first base for the time being. But is that really where Mozeliak wants to go?
More cheaply, if Kozma's Game 1 fielding snafu in the World Series is still on your mind, defensive upgrades are out there: Clint Barmes in particular, and arguably Brendan Ryan (if he doesn't simply re-sign with the Yankees). But they're even less likely to contribute an OPS above .600 than Kozma is, and barely merit the investment beyond providing a spring training alternative.
Which really leaves only two noteworthy potential market solutions: Stephen Drew, returning to free agency after his one-year, $9.5 million deal with the Red Sox, and old friend Rafael Furcal, back on the market after missing the second season of his two-year, $14 million deal with the Cardinals with an elbow injury.
Drew is apparently already receiving multiyear offers but should still cost less than $10 million per year, which would leave the Cardinals with money to spend on Beltran (or not). Between last year's .777 OPS and adequate defense (his postseason heroics afield aside, Plus-Minus and UZR don't peg him as a significant positive), He'd be a worthwhile and fairly safe solution.
What about Furcal? He'd have to be a fairly late selection, since he's going to have to prove that his elbow is sound in winter ball in the Caribbean. Until that happens, Mozeliak would be better off exploring alternatives. But between their familiarity with Furcal, his past value on both sides of the ball, and his comeback campaign, he'd cost less than Drew while providing a better index of risk versus reward.
Let's make a deal: Surely there are teams with veteran shortstops nearing the end of their contracts, or with kids on the way up that might make their current placeholders at short expendable. Talking to the Rangers about Jurickson Profar or Elvis Andrus is the obvious fantasy scenario that excites everybody. A Taveras-for-Profar deal in an exchange for top prospects is one of those tantalizing notions that sounds great on the back of an envelope. It's probably also about as likely to happen as your landing a date with whichever half of Brangelina you fancy.
Asdrubal Cabrera of the Indians would be a great fit: He's a free agent after next year, and the Tribe has top shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor on the way up. But Lindor only just had a sniff of Double-A, and it would be an especially bold -- unlikely, actually -- move for GM Chris Antonetti to swap Cabrera after the Indians' 90-win season anticipating Lindor's arrival before the tail end of 2014. Similarly, the Rays might be eventually willing to talk about Yunel Escobar after having picked up his option, but they'd first need to see how prospect Hak-Ju Lee is healing from his season-ending knee injury.
Another cheaper option would be talking to the Diamondbacks about Didi Gregorius. Considering Arizona just received Gregorius in a deal after the 2012 season, that might sound like a surprise, but homegrown Chris Owings could take the job from the former Reds farmhand in the spring. That solution, however, may not exist until after that job fight resolves itself.
More likely, if Mozeliak wanted to go this route, we're talking about someone like Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox, who is locked up for $20.5 million for the next two years, or $29.5 million over the next three with a club option. A lot of his slugging is U.S. Cellular Field-powered and he's already heading into his age-32 season, but he's durable. Yeah, I'm not too excited about this idea either.
Stick with in-house solutions: Nobody should love this choice, but it isn't like the Cardinals lack for alternatives to Kozma. A little more than a year ago, Ryan Jackson was the guy who looked to be the franchise's first call-up if (or when) something happened to the fragile Furcal. He had been graded a better defender than Kozma, and he has a career walk rate of 9 percent after more than 2,400 minor league plate appearances. On the other hand, Jackson's power dipped in 2013; maybe that's a matter of not adjusting well to being shunted into a utility role, and maybe he's just not that big an upgrade from Kozma.
Which leaves me thinking that, barring a fantasy-fulfilling conversation with the Rangers about either of their shortstops, the idea I like best is using this winter's budget surplus to go get Drew for two or three years (or a two-plus-option deal). If that fails, settling for an incentive-laden return engagement for Furcal if Mozeliak gets to mid-January and no other solution has presented itself.