- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

There are two ways to look at the St. Louis Cardinals’ offseason.

The optimists will say that general manager John Mozeliak aggressively filled his two biggest needs, signing outfielder Dexter Fowler and reliever Brett Cecil to big contracts. And in doing so, he managed to hold onto the top prospects in his farm system, ensuring a bright future.

The pessimists will say that he overpaid for both of them, and that could back the Cardinals into a corner when they need the financial flexibility to make other moves next season.

Reality is probably somewhere in the middle, but one thing is certain: Mozeliak has boldly acquired two premium free agents that better position St. Louis to deal with the World Series champion Chicago Cubs in the NL Central.

“Our group worked tirelessly over the past few weeks, especially this past week at the winter meetings,” Mozeliak said. “There were a lot of things that we were chasing.”

In truth, the dealing began when the Cardinals fortified their bullpen by signing Cecil to a $30.5 million, four-year contract. The left-hander was the only relief pitcher that really fit their wish list, and should be able to deal with high-leverage situations ahead of closer Seung Hwan Oh. Cecil, who was slowed by a torn lat muscle last season, dominated down the stretch. He threw 3 2/3 innings of scoreless ball in the playoffs, confirming everything the Cardinals thought of him.

“They always have good teams - good, winning teams,” Cecil said of the Cardinals, “and like I said, for my family and me, this is where we wanted to come. It was the best fit for us.”

It turned out that plugging up the bullpen was the easy move. Mozeliak knew that solving his outfield quandary would be more expensive, either in terms of prospects or cash on the free-agent market.

Perhaps recognizing that, he sent veteran left-hander Jaime Garcia to the Atlanta Braves. The trade not only saved them the $12 million option the Cardinals exercised on Garcia earlier in the offseason, but it also landed them a pair of pitching prospects and second base prospect Luke Dykstra.

There were several options available to fill the Cardinals’ outfield hole, not to mention address their desire to improve their defense, speed on the base paths and get younger across the board.

But their interest in Adam Eaton became moot when the Nationals swooped in with a better package of prospects, luring the 28-year-old outfielder from the White Sox to Washington. And if there was any interest in Ian Desmond, who converted from shortstop to the outfield for Texas last season, it didn’t matter after the Rockies doled out $70 million over five years to grab him in free agency.

Not surprisingly, the Cardinals turned their focus to Fowler - assuming it was anywhere else all along - and reeled him in last week. But it came at a steep price : $82.5 million over five years.

He’s expected to take over center field, allowing Randal Richuk to slide to left.

“A lot has been written - I don’t know if you were questioning what we were trying to do or weren’t sure we were going to be able to finish,” Mozeliak said. “We certainly wanted to get this done, we’re excited we got this done.”

Fowler gives the Cardinals a top-of-the-order hitter. He gives them speed. He upgrades their defense and gives them more flexibility. And he provides some excitement in the clubhouse.

“This is a baseball city,” said Fowler, who recalled seeing Cardinals shirts in the crowd during the Cubs’ World Series victory parade. “Every time you come here, you see red everywhere. Just being a part of that and their winning culture was a big part of my decision.”

The moves Mozeliak has made this offseason, he hopes, ensures that the winning culture continues. But he also insisted that he isn’t done, even if the big pieces appear to be in place.

“I think for us it’s going to be looking more at complementary pieces to what we have,” he said. “There is no doubt we still have work to do, but making a bolder-type move, I don’t envision that.”

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