© 2008 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

12/10/08 10:46 PM EST

La Russa deems Fuentes top priority

Cardinals manager not mincing words about closer search

LAS VEGAS -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa made explicit on Wednesday what has been suspected for a while now: Brian Fuentes is St. Louis' top priority. Not only did he tell reporters, but La Russa and other Cardinals representatives rolled out the red carpet for the pitcher himself.

"I know we're talking to Fuentes," La Russa said on Wednesday afternoon at baseball's annual Winter Meetings. "I don't know if we're going to get him. I know he likes our situation, and we like him. It seems like it's a perfect fit. So I don't know. If we don't get him, we'll see what's next."

General manager John Mozeliak, unsurprisingly, was more circumspect regarding his team's pursuit of the free-agent left-hander. Mozeliak acknowledged that the Cards may have a greater degree of definition in their search for a ninth-inning pitcher for 2009, but did not identify any one target as ranking higher than others.

"We've said all along that if there's a chance we can address the closer role, we're going to try," Mozeliak said. "Is there some more clarity in this market with the rumors of [Kerry] Wood signing and the confirmation of [Francisco] Rodriguez signing? I think it does help define it. It doesn't mean we're any closer to a deal. We're open and willing to explore. We also are not giving up hope on some other fronts as well should we not be able to accomplish this."

For those parsing every single word, that last "this" was actually very telling. It was Mozeliak's roundabout -- and perhaps accidental -- acknowledgment that his team is in the hunt for Fuentes, the top remaining free-agent closer. St. Louis has also been linked in trade rumors with the Mariners about J.J. Putz, the Pirates about Matt Capps, the Diamondbacks about Jon Rauch and the Astros about Jose Valverde.

FOXSports.com reported on Wednesday evening that Fuentes "appears headed for a three-year, $33 million contract," but did not specify which team was expected to give him that deal.

What has become clearer every day is that finding a closer is Job 1 for the Redbirds. And per La Russa, Fuentes is the pitcher they have in mind. La Russa and the Cardinals met personally with Fuentes, and the skipper said there is definitely mutual interest.

"From Day 1, he's been the guy that fit us the best," La Russa said. "You know, we have a strong right-handed relief core, whether it's a veteran like Ryan [Franklin] or [Josh] Kinney or Brad Thompson or the two kids [Jason Motte and Chris Perez]. A left-handed reliever, quality like Brian, from Day 1, he's the guy who was our first choice. And I'm excited that here we are and we're still in the hunt and he's still available."

"We also are not giving up hope on some other fronts as well should we not be able to accomplish this."
-- GM John Mozeliak, acknowledging the club's pursuit of Brian Fuentes

The Cardinals maintain a desire to add a starting pitcher as well, perhaps via trading an outfielder. But Mozeliak acknowledged Wednesday that the dynamics of the market make it much more imperative to add a closer sooner. The number of available pitchers whom the Cardinals would be confident using in the ninth inning is small. The number of available pitchers who might add depth to the starting rotation is much larger. And it could get larger still on Friday, the deadline for teams to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players.

So the Cards keep working on the ninth, hoping to shore up an area that caused so much heartburn and heartache in 2008. The club has now made it explicitly clear that it has no plans to use any combination of Franklin, Motte and/or Perez to close in 2009.

"How can you watch our [2008] season," La Russa asked, "and not think that one of our key winter objectives would be to do something to improve our 'pen? And not just count on the guys improving that were there. Whether you do it or not, you've got to try, and it's just a question of priority. I actually moved the bullpen and pitching even above what I had been talking about for two winters, which is the [cleanup] hitter. So, yeah, it's a priority. Now, if you can get them, you can get them. If you can't get them, you can't get them."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.