ST. LOUIS -- Eight months ago, the Cardinals embarked on an ambitious offseason plan to revitalize their offense and their clubhouse. The plan has been, through half of the 2011 season, a rousing success.
Now, with run scoring pretty well taken care of, it's time to address the other half of the winning equation: run prevention. As the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches, the Cards are seeking at least one pitcher to upgrade their staff, and possibly more than one.
"I still think our focus is going to be on a starter or bullpen help," general manager John Mozeliak said on Wednesday, two days before the Redbirds begin their post-All-Star schedule in Cincinnati.
"We certainly like what we have, but if we can improve, we'd like to try."
If there's one thing that an aggressive team can just about always acquire at the deadline, it's relief pitching. Unfortunately for the Redbirds, they're not the only club that knows that, so they're not the only club seeking a bullpen upgrade. They could use help on both the right and left sides of the relief corps.
It's also conceivable that St. Louis could acquire a starting pitcher, allowing the team to use one of its current starters to bolster the bullpen. That would be a more difficult move to make, though.
"I just don't want to not explore things," Mozeliak said. "I think the likelihood of us getting a starter is probably very small. But as we spend these next 18 days, we're going to be open to really anything, if we think we can better the club."
As the Cardinals have gotten healthier in recent weeks, the club's needs have been displayed in even sharper relief. The offense ranks second in the National League in runs scored, and that's even after doing without Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, David Freese and Allen Craig for considerable periods of time.
With the first three of those hitters back, and the fourth on the way, the offense is in very good shape. The Cards are 11th in the league in runs allowed, however, and there is less on the way to help. Rookie reliever Eduardo Sanchez is on a rehabilitation assignment at Double-A Springfield, but his return date remains uncertain. And even when Sanchez pitched, he was sometimes brilliant and sometimes erratic.
So St. Louis will seek pitching help, most likely on the relief side. The club has most commonly been linked to San Diego's Heath Bell, but plenty of teams are in the hunt for the Padres' All-Star. The Friars could also move Chad Qualls or Mike Adams, while Florida's Leo Nunez and former Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen, now with the Mets, are also among the righties who could be on the market. Boston's Hideki Okajima and the Mets' Tim Byrdak represent a couple of the left-handed options as the Cardinals shop.
Regardless of what they're shopping for, though, the Cardinals will definitely be buyers. Their farm system has recovered a bit from a year ago, so there are some prospects who could be dealt without crippling the organization. And while Mozeliak declined to say that the team has money to spend, he certainly didn't rule out having some payroll flexibility.
"It just depends on what we're getting," he said. "That determines how we want to invest. And the other part of that equation is what you're giving up. Are we in position to make a move? I think the answer is yes. But the variables are so broad, I think it's tough to answer just one portion."
Any move, even a short-term one, will take place in the shadow of a couple of real-world considerations. Albert Pujols is, of course, a free agent after the season. The Cards must be aware that if they re-sign Pujols, they may have to save money at other spots on the roster, meaning that they must choose wisely which prospects to deal.
And if a trade includes a player who would be around beyond 2011, then it's obviously even more complicated. The Cardinals are in a tough spot regarding '12 until they know whether -- or how much -- they'll be paying Pujols.
That's part of the reason why St. Louis didn't deal for Francisco Rodriguez, who went to the Brewers on Tuesday. If Rodriguez had come to the Cardinals, he almost certainly would have been the closer. That very likely would have put him in position to secure a $17.5 million vesting option for 2012 -- a risk the Redbirds were unwilling to take.
In a bigger sense, though, there is some real pressure to win now because of the uncertainty that lingers after this season. Pujols could be gone next year. Chris Carpenter's future is not determined, with the team holding an option on him for 2012. It's very likely that the Cardinals will be a contender next year, but they can't afford to fritter away what might be Pujols' last season wearing the birds on the bat.
So they're going to try to upgrade, and make a team currently tied for first in the NL Central into a stronger squad in the here and now.
"I think our organization has decided a chance to win is precious," manager Tony La Russa said. "The big message to the team is, they're going to try."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.