During an off-season in which the St. Louis have had no shortage of options for middle relief, either via free agency or the trade route, the Cards have opted to sign former Mets/Marlins closer Braden Looper to a 3 year, $13.5 million deal.

The Minnesota Twins haven’t had a 30 HR hitter since Harmon Killebrew. OK, Kent Hrbeck. With that in mind, Minnesota has signed Tony Batista to a two year deal. Batista, who hasn’t played in the US the last two seasons, smacked 27 homers last year for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

With the Nationals’ ownership situation still undecided, MLB and puppet GM Jim Bowden have asked Frank Robinson to stay on another year. And I’m sure he will — how could anyone, let alone a baseball lifer like Robbie, pass up the chance to see Alfonso Soriano and Preston Wilson combine to strike out 300 times in one season?

While paying tribute to White Sox GM for the trades that brought Javier Vazquez and Jim Thome to the defending champs, the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rogers tries to predict Kenny Williams’ next move.

The Javier Vazquez trade was the fourth significant move by Williams, who has at least one more to go”most likely trading October ace Jose Contreras or 18-game winner Jon Garland.

You can just about bet that Williams and his clever assistant, Rick Hahn, aren’t going to keep five veteran starters on the roster all winter”not with Brandon McCarthy pitching as well as anyone in baseball in the second half of the season (7-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 16 starts between Triple-A and the big leagues) and Neal Cotts flashing an arm that would fit nicely in anyone’s rotation, although probably only after one more year as a set-up man.

In a market where pitching is king, Williams has it to deal.

He could trade any one of four starters, although Mark Buehrle, the pitching cornerstone, is untouchable. Contreras and Garland are more likely to be moved than Freddy Garcia or Vazquez because they are only one year away from free agency.

The most transparent scenarios are a starter and Joe Crede to Texas for a package fronted by left-handed-hitting third baseman Hank Blalock (signed for a highly reasonable $13.7 million for the next three years with a $6.2 million option in 2009); a starter and Juan Uribe to Baltimore for Miguel Tejada”not that likely”or a starter to Baltimore for a package of young talent in a deal that makes Tejada happier about staying put.

St. Louis and Houston both could use another starting pitcher”a thought that really ought to send a chill through Jim Hendry.