Rounding up the hot topics from columnist Ben Frederickson's weekly chat with St. Louis sports fans.
5 REASONS FOR CARDINALS OPTIMISM
QUESTION: Please show me the five top reasons I should go into the 2019 season thinking this is FINALLY the year the Cardinals return to the playoffs.
BENFRED: Here you go ...
5. The Cubs' plateau. The division is up for grabs once more.
4. Pitching. The Cardinals have good arms, and a lot of arms. Few teams in baseball can trot out this kind of depth. And it seems the Cardinals are interested in maximizing it, with the best possible arms on the major league staff if it's left up to manager Mike Shildt. Weaponize the depth.
3. Mike Shildt. The Cardinals' new manager will win some games, at least as many as the team lost due to Matheny's mismanagement.
2. Paul Goldschmidt. He's an MVP candidate. One of the best hitters in the NL. Best first baseman Cardinals have had since Albert Pujols.
1. Three consecutive missed postseasons. The Cardinals know they have to get in.
NO ARENADO, NO DREAMS FOR CARDINALS FANS?
QUESTION: So now Arenado, Harper and Machado are off the board. We’ve been dreaming about those players for the last three years. Obviously the Cardinals will be gunning for Goldy. If the worst case happened — they miss the playoffs again and Goldy decides to move on — where does this team pivot now? Arenado isn’t out there to dream on. Who is instead?
BENFRED: Just my advice: Don't dream.
The Cardinals have not showed much interest in being the last team standing in a true free-agent chase for elite talent. So, stop expecting it.
And, I do think this team is going to make the postseason.
HUDSON VS. GANT FOR THE ROTATION?
QUESTION: Dakota Hudson has to have the edge over John Gant for the rotation, right? Former first-round pick who's been excellent ever since he was been drafted. He's 24 now, turn him loose.
BENFRED: Actually, no. If we're just talking rotation-or-bust, Gant has the edge over Hudson. Why? Because Gant has no options left, meaning he has to pass through waivers if he was sent out. He almost certainly would be claimed, so the Cardinals would lose him. So, Hudson has to pitch so well he forces the Cardinals toward risking losing Gant. Or, Gant could go to the bullpen and Hudson could go into the rotation. But that means you risk losing Gant as starter depth. It's not quite as easy as it seems.
Follow-up: Are you saying Gant has the edge over Hudson, not because he is a better pitcher, but because the Cardinals can't send him down? For a team that seems to want to win, that makes no sense. Why not trade Gant for a low level (single A) prospect and give Hudson the starter job?
BENFRED: Because the season has not started yet, and it's 162 games long. Why rush to get rid of Gant when (a) you don't have to make that call yet; and (b) a starter could get hurt at any moment. Hudson's making a strong case to be in the rotation, but it has to be a strong case to alter the baseball-business-as-usual approach to this situation. He might wind up doing it, too. But Gant is not just an arm to toss to the side. He's been much more reliable and productive than most realize.
RELYING ON BEST-CASE SCENARIOS?
COMMENT: The Cardinals have a right fielder they're expecting a career resurgence from, and the same goes for the fifth starter. Their center fielder has never shown an ability to hit consistently, and their left fielder is not 100 percent. Add Wacha’s fragility and Martinez’s injuries, and this team is relying on a lot of “best case scenarios” to break this playoff drought.
BENFRED: I don't think anyone is expecting a career resurgence from Dexter Fowler or Adam Wainwright. At least no one who is being realistic. If Fowler can have his 2017 season, great. He's a 32-year-old with one All-Star appearance in his career, back in 2016. If Wainwright can give the team a chance to win every start, great. If he can't, put him in the bullpen.
Ozuna is a much bigger catalyst for what this season will or won't be, in my eyes. You are right that the Cardinals left some uncertainty on the field. They also have some good backup plans in O'Neill and the pitching depth.
SOMETHING TO WORRY ABOUT ON THE MLS FRONT?
QUESTION: Should we be worried that MLS effort doesn't have stadium and jersey naming rights completed?
BENFRED: If it does not develop, I guess. But I don't think those are impossible missions to complete. Look at Monday's news. Don Garber, realizing every place he goes and every comment he makes is an update on expansion, came to St. Louis. Raved about St. Louis. Met business folks in St. Louis that are in conversations about sponsoring the potential team in various ways.
And the ownership group feels confident enough that it is starting to use its leverage as well. Not interested in being team No. 29. That was news yesterday, first time it's been said like that on the record. No. 28 or bust.
Garber is not the only one who can use leverage, especially if he wants to have a team in STL as much as he says he does.
MIZZOU MAKING PROGRESS UNDER MARTIN?
QUESTION: Cuonzo Martin's Mizzou teams have won 15 of 36 SEC games. When does the clock start ticking on his stint in CoMo?
BENFRED: LOL! He took the worst team in high major college basketball for three years to the NCAA tournament in his first season. He immediately altered recruiting and made the Tigers appealing to the rich pools of talent in St. Louis.
He's not going anywhere anytime soon, unless he wants to leave, and he doesn't.
Follow-up: How was the Cuonzo Martin question"LOL"-worthy? That's a .417 win percentage. They gave away too many games to count in the final two minutes. Tilmon hasn't learned a thing about how to control himself on the court. (Or on the bench.) The offense appears to be: jack up a 3 and retreat to play mad defense ... except players like Watson and Pinson have no concept of what Martin wants on defense.
BENFRED: Your question was laughed off because you implied Martin is trending toward the hot seat. That's laughable. If you want to talk about how the team needs to improve, then heck yeah, we can have that talk. But to have it without an understanding of the deep hole he is trying to pull the program from, and the back-to-back injuries to the team's most important players in back-to-back seasons, and the fact that THE TIGERS WENT TO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT LAST SEASON AFTER BEING A JOKE OF A PROGRAM FOR THREE YEARS seems like a pretty superficial conversation to have.
Tilmon got better this season, though his problems with foul troubles overshadowed it. A talented young core is starting to take shape, including Pickett and Watson. Losing Geist hurts, but that's it. Team will be better next season.
And finally, to a follow-up comment in support of Martin, BenFred replied:
He brought life back to a proud program that had become a zombie. Talented in-state players are viewing Mizzou as an option again. Jayson Tatum's dad has said he might have considered Mizzou if Martin was there. Every team in the country would have loved to have Michael and Jontay. Bad luck. Dang near cursed. And still the Tigers went to the tournament in the first season.
Young guys took steps forward this season. Tilmon has to put it together, and this was not the year he needed to have once Jontay went down. But every game, the Tigers play their tails off. They have to get better at closing out games. Of course. Part of that is needing a point guard. Geist had a great senior season, but he melted down in close/late situations. These are not incurable fixes. Recruiting is the lifeblood of the sport. Martin's got it up and running again.
IT'S NOT JUST HIS ARM — OZUNA'S SWING LAGGING, TOO
QUESTION: Does Marcell Ozuna have any idea what he is doing wrong at the plate? He seems to be popping a lot of balls up and making weak contact most of the time. At least last year, while he didn't get much lift on it, he hit almost everything hard.
BENFRED: The Cardinals insist he's working on timing-related hiccups now. And I'm told his swings look better as of late, than early, when he was basically taking a one-arm swing. Shildt saw good things from Ozuna at the plate and in the field in yesterday's game. Said he saw a better bat path. We'll see. His throwing arm has without a doubt looked better as of late.
Follow-up: Ozuna still steps toward third base when he swings and pulls off everything. He shows up 25 pounds overweight, is shady to the team about his offseason workouts and is hitting under .100. O'Neill shows up raking and in great shape — and we have to watch Ozuna wallow around in LF every day?
BENFRED: If Ozuna does not hit, and has at best a passable arm, then no, you won't see him in left field every day. Not if Tyler O'Neill and Jose Martinez are thumping.
But Ozuna is not going to lose his job coming out of spring training. Some wondered if he might wind up starting the season on the DL. That does not look likely now. After today's game, he should be in left field pretty regularly, per Shildt.
WHY CRITICIZE WAINWRIGHT?
COMMENT: I’m confused about the negativity from some fans toward Wainwright. He’s out-pitched most of the others fighting for a rotation spot. Fans said they didn’t want Wainwright to be handed a job, but he hasn’t been -- he’s earning it.
BENFRED: I'd clarify that to say "fans online." The divide between the fan interaction Wainwright sees in real life and the vibe toward the future Cardinals Hall of Famer is quite different. People like to be right, and rooting for an aging pitcher to fall apart is a good side to take. Eventually, it comes true for every guy. So, there will be online chest-beating when Wainwright is pushed out or calls it quits, however that comes to pass when it does come to pass.
For now, though, he's doing enough to hold his spot. It's not dominant. It's not always pretty. But it is effective enough to keep the youngsters from taking his job. If he can give the team a chance to win, he will pitch. If he doesn't, he will be moved to the bullpen. That's the benefit of the contract extension he signed. It's not like the Cardinals are sending him out as opening day starter. He's not starting game one -- that's Mikolas -- and Jack Flaherty will almost certainly start the home opener.
LET'S PLAY GM FOR A DAY
QUESTION: You are the GM -- please rank these Cardinal outfielders you have the most faith in to be productive this year: Ozuna, Fowler, Bader, O'Neill, Martinez, and outside the organization? Same with the starting pitching.
BENFRED: Take that, Girsch!
Tough question. It depends on the definition of production. More productive than the other names on this list? Or productive compared to what we should expect from each individual guy? Those are different answers.
You give Ozuna more time because his upside is 2017.
You give Bader more time offensively because he's an elite defender. I'm confident in Bader's defense, but not convinced he will hit well enough all season to hold off challengers.
I'm confident in O'Neill's power, but not convinced he's an MLB center fielder, and I wonder if he can hit enough HRs to justify the K's.
I'm confident Fowler will be better than last season, but not sure how much.
At this point, I'm most concerned about Ozuna.
And, Dylan Carlson is coming.
As for the starting pitching: Mikolas, Flaherty, Wacha, Wainwright, Gant, Hudson, Martinez,at the moment.
WHAT IF CARDS BUCKED THE TREND AND PAID THE KIDS?
COMMENT: With the uproar of baseball not being in sync with the players regarding salaries, and the Cardinals unable to convince some high profile free agents to sign here, here's a thought: If the Cardinals were to buck the trend of teams of paying the absolute minimum (Flaherty, for example), they'd likely be seen as a team those free agents would want to sign with, knowing the Cardinals are "taking care of their own."
BENFRED: I see what you are saying. The Jose Martinez contract was an example of that. Flaherty renewal was not. But Adam Wainwright was renewed once, and it did not stop him from signing later extensions with the team. Carlos Martinez was threatened with an arbitration hearing. It did not keep him from signing a later extension.
Sometimes, we focus too much on these things. Players forget and move on. Business is business, and smart players realize owners -- across the board -- are just working within the rules of the flawed CBA players agreed to.
OPENING DAY ROSTER PREDICTIONS
QUESTION: Who will be in the opening-day starting outfield for the Cardinals? Who will be the Nos. 4 & 5 starting pitchers? What about Reyes and C-Mart? DL for them?
BENFRED: I think Ozuna-Bader-Fowler will get the first game.
Wainwright for No. 4 and Gant or Hudson for No. 5, but my money has been moved to Hudson.
Reyes in the bullpen looks likely, based on Shildt's comments Tuesday.
Carlos Martinez is not going to be ready, starter or bullpen, by opening day. He will be on the injury list (formerly known as the disabled list).
SUFFICIENT FAN SUPPORT FOR PRO SOCCER HERE?
QUESTION: How much (if any) concern should there be for local fan support of pro soccer? There's a growing sentiment in the online soccer community that because Sacramento averages over 10,000 fans a game for its USL team, while St. Louis can barely get 5,000 for their USL side, that the former is far more deserving of the 28th spot in MLS.
BENFRED: USL attendance will not be what decides or does not decide where MLS plants its next team, no matter how much your local USL team might want you to believe. It's a factor, sure. But Garber's concerned about the sponsorship support in STL. He's had glowing remarks for the fans in the area.
Follow-up: If you had to give STL's chances of getting franchise No. 28 a percentage, what would you give it? 80 percent? 90 percent?
BENFRED: I don't want to put a reckless number on it. We know what needs to happen. The ownership group needs to secure major sponsors not named Enterprise or World Wide Technology. If it can do that, and MLS moves the goalposts, then you have to question if the league wants STL or wants to use STL as a stalking horse.
THE FOLES PHENOMENON
QUESTION: After watching Nick Foles get benched for Case Keenum years ago as a member of the St. Louis Rams, how weird is it that he's getting a gigantic NFL free agency contract?
BENFRED: I have realized that all assumptions made about players while they were playing in the final iterations of the St. Louis Rams must be wiped away entirely. Jeff Fisher was a terrible coach toward the end. The environment around the team was in some ways toxic, with everyone knowing the emphasis was the move, and that many were not part of the future plans. So, I'm not surprised when a player who was bad with the Rams turns out to be good elsewhere. Foles falls into that category.