SHILDT’S TIME TO SHINE
QUESTION: What can be expected from a spring training led by Mike Shildt?
BENFRED: I think, right away, there will be an emphasis on the fundamentals that slipped in past seasons. There will be a diligence that had faded. I also expect there to be an emphasis on this stuff actually mattering. Toward the end of the Matheny era, spring training had a nonchalance about it. I think that ends under Shildt. He’s excited to get his hands on his team.
A manager who doesn’t get to run his own spring training doesn’t really have HIS team. Spring sets a foundation. Shildt’s first big shot with the Cardinals was running minor league spring training. He talks about that often. This matters to him, and that means it will matter to his players.
BIGGEST STORY LINES AT SPRING TRAINING?
QUESTION: What are the biggest story lines you will be watching at spring training?
BENFRED: How does Dexter Fowler’s rebound attempt start? Can Carlos Martinez get back to a sense of normalcy after a weird spring training that fed into a weird season? How does Marcell Ozuna’s shoulder look? How do Matt Carpenter’s throws look from third base? Those are the biggest ones that come to mind.
CAN CARDS WIN 95 GAMES?
QUESTION: Can this Cardinals team, as currently constructed, win 95 games?
BENFRED: I think they are a better team today than they were last season. And they were a better team last season than they were in 2017. This team has not had a player like Paul Goldschmidt since Pujols departed. That’s a game-changing difference in the lineup and at first base, which had become a major leak for errors and plays not made in recent seasons. Andrew Miller is more of a wild card, but even if he’s bad, he’s still an improvement for this bullpen. Honest.
And the manager is going to win more games than he loses with his moves. Predicting wins in January is impossible, but I think this team could win 90-95 as constructed today.
GUT FEELING ABOUT GOLDY?
QUESTION: What’s your gut feeling about the Cardinals being able to lock up Goldschmidt with an extension?
BENFRED: Unlike some, I think the Cardinals have a shot here. That’s not the hottest of takes, but I’ve seen some assume it’s a non-starter. I disagree with that notion. A lot of it comes down to experiences that have not started yet, so it’s impossible to say. How does he like spring training? How competitive is the team? Nothing sells a team like playing for it while it wins. The more it wins, the less you have to sell.
The Cardinals can’t expect a hometown discount. Goldschmidt has done that before, and I don’t expect him to do it again. But if the Cardinals pay him competitively, and he likes his year here, I could see him wanting to stay.
THE REAL REASON CARDS AREN’T CHASING HARPER
QUESTION: Is too much being made about the Cardinals’ lack of familiarity with Harper being a factor in their hesitance to pursue him?
BENFRED: Probably, yes. The notion that the Cardinals’ lack of firsthand knowledge about Harper gives them caution about pursuing him only makes sense if you add the ending. The Cardinals’ lack of firsthand knowledge about Harper gives them caution about pursuing him — at the current price point. If Harper was willing to drop his contract requests, that lack of familiarity would not be as big of a deal, right?
The Cardinals felt they had good info on Ozuna because they shared spring training facilities, and how did that turn out? He had a bum shoulder they underestimated. The Cardinals don’t seem to be convinced the juice is worth the squeeze when it comes to Harper. His spikes and dips in performance likely aid that opinion. He’s not the definition of consistency. I’ll admit that, and I like the player.
This is about, more than anything, the contract for the player. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it here. Harper would be a DeWitt Jr. call. And I don’t see it happening after Goldschmidt.
WHY MACHADO WAS NEVER REALLY A TARGET
QUESTION: If Manny Machado can get something like seven years between $210-250 million, why is that not compelling to the Cardinals?
BENFRED: The Cardinals indicated at one point that Machado, perhaps even over Harper, seemed like a better bet for a long-term contract in terms of his long-term projection of performance. That stuck out to me, but maybe it was more of an indication of their willingness to watch the Harper race from the sideline than anything. The Cardinals also indicated at one point that Machado really hurt himself with his postseason antics. I think if the Cardinals saw a fit there, they would have been connected by now. Machado has taken visits. The teams interested seem to be known.
The Cardinals are bullish on DeJong at SS and committed to Carpenter at 3B with Goldschmidt at 1B. I don’t think they think Machado would be a good fit, and I tend to agree with them on that. We also don’t know if Machado would have any interest in playing in STL. He’s just never been viewed as a legitimate target, despite the trade chatter about him in the past, some of which seemed overstated to me.
More than anything, I don’t think the Cardinals ever planned on adding two impact bats. They said they needed one. They got Goldschmidt. Any hope they would go after another seemed to be just that: hope.
WOULD FINDING THE RIGHT COACH SOLVE BLUES’ PROBLEMS?
QUESTION: The Blues remain a puzzle. Where is the team identity? The talent seems to be there. Could the right coach find the proper combinations to make this a playoff team?
BENFRED: They seem lost in transition. Under Hitch, the Blues were a heavy, punishing team. They were old-school, but they had an identity. Then all of a sudden it was decided that style would not work in the modern NHL. The Blues needed to be faster, even if it meant being less physical. OK.
But now they seem stranded in the middle. They’re not imposing. They’re not fast. The talent is there, but the chemistry is not. The goalie situation remains a potential trapdoor. The culture is not one of a championship caliber team.
A lot to figure out beyond who occupies the coaching office, but I won’t underestimate what the right coach can do. The right coach can transform a team and an organization. I don’t know who that is. Like most of you, I think it would be nice to see what Quenneville could do if he could be convinced to come give it another go.
NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS ON THE MLS FRONT?
QUESTION: It’s been really quiet on the MLS front. Too quiet. When will we hear more about this effort?
BENFRED: The ownership group has gone a little quiet once again. I would not necessarily assume that is a bad thing. A visit from Don Garber and an ownership group follow-up trip to New York are potential milestone moments to watch for moving forward. I think things will start to stir a little bit more now that holidays have wrapped up.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR GORDON … AND THE BILLIKENS?
QUESTION: What do you think is next for Carte’Are Gordon?
BENFRED: It was a little odd that Travis Ford didn’t seem to know when asked last week. He mentioned the idea of Gordon transferring or going pro. You would think SLU would have a sense of what the plan is, but that also points to the nature of Gordon and his departure. He does what he does. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up. If Gordon can’t make it to class at Webster Groves High and SLU, I’m not sure he’s going to be able to handle living and playing professionally in another country.
The buzz last week was that Memphis seemed like a realistic transfer landing spot. He has a relationship with the coaching staff there from his AAU days.
Follow-up: Call me crazy, but can St. Louis University be better by prioritizing KC Hankton now that Carte’Are Gordon is gone? Can the Billikens still win the A-10?
BENFRED: I won’t call you crazy. Just optimistic. SLU can be a good team without Gordon. It can’t be as good of a team as it would have been if Gordon was playing and playing well. He’s a special talent. He was their best rim defender and shot-alterer, and that’s saying something with Hasahn French on the team.
That said, the Rhode Island win was big. That sent a message to the team. These guys can do this. Yes, they can still win the A-10. It will be a tougher road, but SLU has gotten used to walking those in recent seasons. Ford is good at keeping a team together through ups and downs.
NO NEED TO TRADE JOSE MARTINEZ
QUESTION: Are the Cardinals still considering trading Jose Martinez?
BENFRED: Martinez is still on the team as of today. But here’s something for those who are trying to read the tea leaves: During a recent radio interview GM Michael Girsch mentioned Martinez as potential security behind Dexter Fowler in right field! I joke with the exclamation point, but it was nice to hear after the vibe at winter meetings sure seemed to be that the Cardinals were determined to trade Martinez.
Unless there is some great deal for him out there — like a very good reliever who fills an important spot in the bullpen — then I would rather see him stay with the team. He’s been the team’s second-best hitter each of the past two seasons. He would have Harrison Bader and Paul Goldschmidt protecting him defensively in right field. I’d start Martinez in right field today if I had one game to win.
WHERE DOES FOWLER FIT IN THE LINEUP?
QUESTION: How should the Cardinals handle Dexter Fowler when it comes to where he hits in the lineup?
BENFRED: The team has been pretty adamant about giving Fowler a shot to earn the starting job in right field. What it has not been very adamant about is where he hits. I think it will be a start-him-low-and-let-him-climb approach. Why should it not be? If he’s 2017 Fowler, he will climb quickly.
There’s a simple way for Mike Shildt to solve this. What is worse: Starting Fowler low, and letting him climb up because he performs (positive!), or starting him high and having to move him down if he does not perform (negative!)? Create a chance for positive momentum, not backward.
WHY WOULD CROCKETT THINK HE’S NFL-READY?
QUESTION: What was Damarea Crockett thinking leaving Mizzou early? Best of luck to him, but he hasn’t exactly been lights-out since his freshman year.
BENFRED: I’m guessing he was thinking what the rest of us were thinking. He got outplayed by Larry Rountree this season. And there were games where he got outplayed by Tyler Badie. I suppose he didn’t want to be second or (perhaps more likely) third string. How he went from that to deciding he could play in the NFL, I’m not sure.
Mizzou’s staff was surprised by his decision. He was told by the NFL to return to school. I’m not sure the coaches had much of a heads-up between that advice and his decision.
MAKE EVERYONE ELIGIBLE FOR NFL DRAFT?
QUESTION: Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence looked NFL-ready. Should true freshmen be eligible for the draft?
BENFRED: I’m struggling with this one. Should Trevor Lawrence have that option? Yes. But for every Trevor Lawrence, there would be way too many freshmen who burn their college eligibility by entering the NFL draft too early. Guys get grades from the NFL that are pretty candid about their prospects, but still they don’t listen. Take Mizzou RB Damarea Crockett, for example. He was advised by the league to go back to school. Ignored it. If there could be a way where first and second-year players could enter the draft — only if they are given a first-round grade by the draft advisory group — then I think I would be in favor of that.
LABOR PAINS AHEAD FOR BASEBALL?
QUESTION: Do you think a labor stoppage is probable for MLB within the next five years?
BENFRED: I’m not sure about probable, but it’s certainly possible. The existing collective bargaining agreement is set to expire after the 2021 season. Some bitter feelings seem to be growing instead of fading away. Players see the league’s money growing and player salaries shrinking, especially through free agency. They don’t understand that, and they don’t like it. Hard to blame them considering they are the product. Free agency needs some new rules. Players need to be strong during the next round of negotiations. I think a lot more will be paying attention and voicing their opinions than in previous years. There are current stars, like Kris Bryant, who have been burned by teams using the service time loopholes, for example. I would not be surprised if there is some sort of a stoppage but there is plenty of time to work out problems, and that would be in both parties’ best interests.
The players need to find a way to restructure free agency. They have lost their leverage. Free agency is supposed to be a reward, but it has turned into a curse for players who reach it at 30-plus years old. That’s a significant chunk of players. So, if I was a player, I would fight hard to reach free agency sooner. I’d fight to remove the comp picks because it makes free agents less appealing.
And I would fight against tanking teams, because that really pulls the rug out from beneath good free agents by decreasing significantly the amount of teams that want to pay good players. The draft should stop rewarding the worst teams. It should start rewarding the teams that just miss the postseason.