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For Cardinals fans, the baseball offseason has long been summed up by this column’s title. While we can distract ourselves with Albert Pujols winning yet another silly award, St. Louis fans still collectively huddle under blankets, beg Mother Nature for July’s suffocating heat waves and curse Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt under their breath for not allowing the front office to spend millions upon millions of dollars to nab the sexiest players on this year’s market, regardless of whether it makes perfect sense. “Oh, for just one Sabathia, K-Rod or Manny this Christmas,” they cry. The perfect soundtrack to such moping is, of course, The Smiths.

HEAVEN KNOWS I’M MISERABLE NOW

That’s my reaction, at least, to the Cardinals’ middle-infield offensive woes in 2008. Our oft-played keystone combo of Cesar Izturis and Adam Kennedy combined to hit 37 extra-base hits in 819 plate appearances, which is, frankly, pathetic. Factoring in super-sub Aaron Miles doesn’t help matters greatly. For some context, the Cubs’ middle-infield core collected an extra-base hit in 7.0 per cent of its steps to the plate, versus just 4.6 per cent for the Redbirds. Now you can see why the Cardinals have tendered an offer to Felipe Lopez, who in two months in St. Louis hit well over his head. But by comparison to the rest of his competition from last year, Lopez’s .538 slugging percentage looks downright Ruthian.

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE LET ME GET WHAT I WANT

So the Cardinals need to address their middle infield situation, which to me is the most pressing need this offseason as we can expect some offensive regression with the addition of a rookie in center (Colby Rasmus) and a likely step back from overachiever Ryan Ludwick. Up the middle, we can’t afford to not improve offensively. Miles and Brendan Ryan are already set to return along with Kennedy, who has requested a trade that will hopefully be fulfilled. The Cardinals should have enough payroll flexibility to dangle one significant contract into the free agent waters, but I’d split up that lump sum and spend it on two players. First, I’d nab (soon-to-be) 31-year-old Orlando Hudson to play second, offering a three-year contract. For three straight seasons, Hudson has out-performed his career .433 slugging percentage, and last season he notched an extra-base hit in 8.8 per cent of his plate appearances. His power numbers are a bit aided by playing his home games at Bank One Ballpark, but even if his production dips some he’s a valuable asset as he reaches base at a slightly above-average clip. The fact that he’s also an above-average defender is a plus, and will help to balance out my selection at short.

I’d pass on signing one former Redbirds shortstop, David Eckstein, for another, Edgar Renteria. While Rafael Furcal is also out there, he’s likely to command too many years and too much dough. Renteria should come considerably cheaper, so I’d offer him a one- or two-year deal and hope that he rebounds from a modest performance last season, which was complicated by a horrendous road split.

HAND IN GLOVE

Some folks will take umbrage with my selection of Renteria and wonder aloud whether he can still hack it at shortstop. Fair enough, but Renteria is supposedly working this offseason to become lighter on his feet. Overall, I feel the Cardinals’ rather pedestrian effort in the field last season will improve now that Rick Ankiel has another full season as an outfielder under his belt. The expected addition of capable center fielder Colby Rasmus scoots Ankiel over to left, where he’s probably better suited to play. That helps to shore up our outfield defense, which was relatively poor last season. We return Gold Glove defenders at first and behind the plate, and a strong defender at third. I’ll roll the dice with this defensive group.

I STARTED SOMETHING I COULDN’T FINISH

There’s some rumblings of a Cardinals offer to free-agent reliever Kerry Wood. Thanks, but no thanks. Closers are chronically overpaid, and injury-prone pitchers like Wood should be low on our list. (Or do we all need a recent history lesson? Spell it out with me: I-S-R-I-N-G-H-A-U-S-E-N.) Let’s continue to let Chris Perez learn on the job. If he should falter, then we have another live arm in Jason Motte to fall back on, plus Ryan Franklin, who can step in during a pinch.

Let’s please allow our relative depth in cheap, righthanded relievers to potentially pay dividends, and instead focus on improving the left side of our bullpen. Jeremy Affeldt is already off the board, signing with the Giants and setting the tone for lefties with a two-year, $8-million contract. We can expect Brian Fuentes to easily top that, which will take us out of the running for his services. The Cards are supposedly targeting former Cubs and Braves reliever Will Ohman and former Marlins reliever Arthur Rhodes, two veterans who can shut down lefthanded batters and will likely cost us less than Affeldt. While we’re looking at oldies, I’d add Brian Shouse, recently of the Brewers, to that list. Then I’d spruce it up a bit with the addition of Joe Beimel, who is hittable but has allowed just one home run over the past two seasons.

MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING

It appears as if we aren’t going to be a player — yet again — for a major addition to our rotation this offseason. Meanwhile, the team we’re trying to catch, the Cubs, isn’t about to stop spending money until it has purchased itself a World Series ticket. After inking Ryan Dempster to a $52-million contract, one that I think will haunt Chicago in the coming years, the Cubs’ pursuit of Jake Peavy seems less a priority and certainly far from a done deal. If they land both pitchers, I don’t see any wiggle room for the Cardinals front office, or its players, over the next season. They’ll all need to be nearly flawless if the Cards are going to return to postseason play in ’09.

As for Cubs fans, I’ll take pleasure this winter in reminding them, once again, “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.”