The Sunday Night Hot Stove League Report

Some of the best deals are the ones that are not made.

The Cardinals returned from the Winter Meetings in Dallas, failing to sign free agent starting pitcher, A.J. Burnett.

Burnett signed a five-year, $55-million contract with the Blue Jays after the Cardinals were unwilling to guarantee a fifth year. A deal that, in my opinion, the Cardinals were right to walk away from.

"The market has gone crazy, but we're not going to go crazy with it, OK?" Cardinals General Manager, Walt Jocketty said Friday. "And if clubs want to spend the kind of money they're spending on the players they're spending it on, more power to them. But we hope to make better decisions."

While I have been critical of the direction the Cardinals have taken this winter, considering the contracts that were eventually awarded to Burnett and San Diego outfielder Brian Giles, I am pleased with the final outcome and remain confident that the Cardinals will make better decisions.

The Cardinals are much better off moving to plan B, than being stuck with over- paying for plan A.

Before leaving Dallas, the Cardinals did trade reliever Ray King for Larry Bigbie and Aaron Miles. There has been some debate over this trade, but it was clear for weeks that King wasn't going to be playing for St. Louis next season.

Bigbie and Miles will both be given an opportunity to make the club out of spring training.

Reggie Sanders, Julian Tavarez and Mark Grudzielanek are all free agents now, after the Cards declined to offer arbitration to any of them.

I will admit, I am disappointed that the Cardinals failed to bring Grudz back. Asked this week by a reader, if I would be willing to extend a two year contract to Mark for $4-million dollars, my answer is yes. I think you have to spread the cost of Grudzielanek playing in St. Louis over the three years he would have played here, if the Cardinals could come to terms for two years for $2-million. Mark played for $1-million dollars last season, a bargain. Spread your cost of him playing in St. Louis for three years for $5-million makes sense to me.

There has been some reports that Grudzielanek was asking for a three year contract from some teams and I can't blame the Cardinals for not making that deal.

Reggie Sanders is also looking for a multi-year deal and that contributed to St. Louis letting him go.

The Cardinals did offer arbitration to Matt Morris, but he has said he will not return to St. Louis and has reportedly narrowed his choices down to two teams, the Giants and Reds, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report.

Jocketty held a press conference Friday afternoon in St. Louis, to address the concerns of fans about the building of the 2006 team.

"I wouldn't panic," Jocketty said. "First of all, you have to look at our club. We still have the basic core of our club that's very good. We've got to try to find the right parts to mesh with that We lost a lot of guys last year. I was panicked then. You lost the core of our club. I don't feel as panicked this year. ... The big question right now is bullpen."

Walt confirmed Friday that the Cardinals hope to soon sign Ricardo Rincon as the replacement for Ray King. The Cardinals remain involved for relievers Octavio Dotel and former Cardinal Braden Looper.

Rincon appeared in 67 games for the Athletics last year, allowing just 10 of 46 inherited runners to score. He'll fill the lefty relief role vacated by the trade of Ray King to Colorado last week.

Octavio Dotel will not be ready to start the season, but could be worth signing if he can be ready to play after the All Star break.

Braden Looper received an offer from the Texas Rangers this week and is expected to serve in a setup role behind Francisco Cordero, but the Cardinals should be able to entice him to return to St. Louis.

Having a healthy Octavio Dotel and Braden Looper in the bullpen will go a long way in solving the Cardinals bullpen problems.

Jocketty also said in an earlier radio interview Friday, that the Cardinals are taking the money not spent on a starting pitcher and may shift their focus to find a corner outfielder and or second baseman.

He added for now, Hector Luna is the leading candidate to start the season at second base. Luna would likely be a better starting option than Deivi Cruz or Aaron Miles. Of course he'll have to earn the job this spring but at least he has the GM on his side.

Miles utility role is limited to playing just at second base. He clearly has potential to be competitive for the starting job at second, with Grudzielanek moving on.

The Cardinals biggest needs are an impact corner outfielder to replace the retired Larry Walker and relief help. The Cardinals have three bullpen openings following the loss of King, Tavarez and Cal Eldred, who retired. After the early pursuit of Burnett the Cardinals appear ready to shift focus to fill their most significant needs.

Friday, Jocketty asked for a little perspective. The Cardinals rarely have driven the market, waiting instead to take advantage of bargains and other teams' distress sales. "You'd like to think we've earned the benefit of the doubt," he said.

And they have.



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