Free-agent targets for 2022 season

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It's the holiday season, and that gives us a perfect excuse to continue talk of the Cardinals' offseason wish list as they look to rejuvenate their roster heading into what's hoped to be an exciting 2022 season. To do so, let's crack open a Hot Stove-themed Inbox, as pooled from questions received on Twitter:

If the Cardinals were to spend big money at one spot, what's the most likely decision? Starting pitching or shortstop?
-- @josephflorez

This, succinctly, might be the question of the Cardinals' offseason.

There is a fair argument the Cards could and should be in on the high-profile shortstops available given the middling production they received from the position last season. and his left-handed bat would be an excellent fit in a vacuum, but he is also being highly sought. Plus, Mozeliak has preached some patience with , who battled a left rib fracture and never found his footing last season. All signs this offseason point to starting pitching as the focus, and the exact path taken may very well demonstrate the magnitude in which the organization feels it needs to improve upon the 2021 club.

What free agent pitchers from their 2021 roster are the Cardinals most likely to retain for 2022?
-- @Cards_Stats

One has already returned in the form of , and the club was very happy with what they saw from -- another midseason peripheral pickup -- that a return could be in the cards as well.

Harkening back to the last question, starting pitchers , and are all possible candidates for a reunion that would signal more modest candidates for the rotation, though questions reside with all three. Is Happ's second-half turnaround for real, after he was tied for the lead in the Majors in earned runs when he was acquired at the Trade Deadline? Is Lester, who has pondered retirement, returning to action? Is LeBlanc, who missed the final month with an elbow issue, healthy enough to provide enough innings at 37 years old?

Whereas and 's time with the organization appear over, all of the above candidates remain real possibilities of wearing the birds on the bat in 2022.

Is doing enough in the AFL to convince the front office he is the left-handed bench bat they need? Or will they pursue one via trade or free agency?
-- @frrobinson1957

Very much yes to the first part, but the second part still remains a possibility.

Nootbaar, even before posting the third-best OPS in the Arizona Fall League with a 1.080 mark, had turned heads last season as a real quality fourth outfielder and left-handed bat for the Cards in 2022. He can take a walk, plays quality defense and steal a bag in a pinch. Part of that emergence made the existence of Nick Plummer -- the former first-round Draft pick who was allowed to hit free agency at the start of November -- a little bit redundant in the Cards' pipeline.

Still, the Cards could benefit from adding a proven Major League bat in 2022, and especially one that hits from the left side of the plate. Nootbaar likely hasn't done enough to earn such a role, but at the very least he has given a glimpse at the spark he can play should he fill in for an ailing outfielder. is surging as a possible designated hitter option should the DH be introduced to the NL in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, though he's a right-handed hitter. The expected emergence of (the club's top prospect) could spell a left-handed power option, but should the Cards could benefit by adding one more power threat through free agency or trade this offseason. Nootbaar makes the need a little less dire, but it's a need nonetheless.

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