Mike Shildt wasn't joking.
When the Cardinals manager said he believes his defense will start six Gold Glove candidates in 2019, there may or may not have been some odd looks shared by reporters who heard the comments during winter meetings.
Shildt was happy to elaborate.
Catcher Yadier Molina won his ninth Gold Glove last season. New first baseman Paul Goldschmidt has three.
"Kolten (Wong) was, in my mind, the winner," Shildt continued. "He was right there in that conversation, clearly. And of course (Harrison) Bader. (Marcell) Ozuna won one (in 2017). And the guy that's coming, for me, that's a little sneaky good is, Paul DeJong."
Today marks two months until Cardinals position players report to spring training.
I don't know about six Gold Gloves, but you can make a case this defense will be improved compared to the one that leaked oil last season and beyond.
Here's how it happens:
• The dynamic new duo of Goldschmidt and Wong must become as impressive as its potential. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak said one text message jumped out to him as the flood of congratulations arrived following the Goldschmidt trade. It was from Kolten Wong. A simple statement. "It's going to be hard for a ball to get through the right side of the infield," the second baseman sent to Mozeliak. That should absolutely be the case.
• The Goldschmidt Effect must be immediate and impactful. The Cardinals, as anyone who followed them already knows, led the majors in errors last season. They had 133, a total of 10 more than the second-worst Phillies. What did not get enough play was that 20 of those errors came at first base, Only one other team — the miserable Detroit Tigers — had that many errors at first. No other team had more than 14! Substituting the steady Goldschmidt for the back-and-forth between Jose Martinez and Matt Carpenter should make a big difference in the errors and plays not made. Goldschmidt will remind us what a natural first baseman looks like. It's been too long.
• DeJong must continue to make strides. Those who beat the drum for a defense-first shortstop this offseason seemed to ignore DeJong's development in 2018. Thrown into the fire in 2017, DeJong managed to be an average defender at shortstop. His zero on Fielding Bible's +/- Runs Saved scale ranked 18th in the majors at the position. Last season, his +14 ranked third. He tied Francisco Lindor (+14) and trailed only Andrelton Simmons (+21) and Nick Ahmed (+21). Does DeJong truly belong in that group? Maybe not. But he deserves more credit than he receives, and he should continue to improve. Oh, and don't forget: He's only 25 years old.
• The middle of the defense must stay healthy. From catcher Molina, to shortstop DeJong and second baseman Wong, to center fielder Bader, the Cardinals have one of the more impressive defensive backbones around — if everyone is always on the field. Bader is entering his first full season as a major-league starter, and he plays a hard-charging style that makes him a higher injury risk. Wong finally has the full faith of a manager, but he's battled injuries the past two seasons. Molina rarely, if ever, needs a safety net, but the trade of Carson Kelly to Arizona in the Goldschmidt move eliminated the team's most MLB-ready backup catcher.
• The corner outfielders have to bounce back. If Marcell Ozuna's surgically repaired throwing shoulder and Dexter Fowler's healed foot are not noticeably better, that means trouble for the Cardinals. Bader can't be asked to catch everything to his left and throw everything to his right. Ozuna made some head-scratching mistakes last season, but he finished sixth among left fielders in Fielding Bible's Runs Saved (+8). The only question is the arm. Opponents are going to test it. They would be foolish not to. Fowler, who had played just one inning of corner outfield before moving there last season, was a minus-5 in right field, where he often looked uncomfortable even before he was injured. He should be more familiar with the territory moving forward. All eyes will be on these two during spring training. "That was the purpose (of the surgery," Mozeliak said recently about Ozuna's repaired shoulder. "Give him more flexibility and allow him to throw pain-free. That was the goal."
• Matt Carpenter, like Ozuna, worried fans with some suspect throws last season. He also happened to post the best defensive grades at third base of his career. Carpenter's 568.2 innings at the hot corner last season became the most time he had spent there since 2015. He checked in at +6 in Fielding Bible's Runs Saved. And this was after he spent an offseason prioritizing first base. The Cardinals are optimistic that Carpenter, knowing since the Goldschmidt trade he was headed back across the diamond, will be ready for the workload. A few questionable throws will not scramble the plan.
• The Cardinals must move forward without the daily presence and wisdom of coach Jose Oquendo. He's not walking through that door. Stubby Clapp will focus on the infielders. Willie McGee will take the point on the outfield. Everyone from Shildt to new game-planning coach Joey Prebynski will have a hand in trying to restore pride to what used to be the Cardinals' strength.
• Cardinals pitchers need to help more than they hurt. This pitching staff likes to complete at the plate. Perhaps it should compete in the field. That startling error total mentioned earlier included 22 errors by Cardinals pitchers. That was second-worst in the majors. Only Pirates pitchers (23) committed more errors. Maybe it's time for some new pitcher-fielding drills?
Six Gold Gloves is asking a lot. Postseason baseball would feel even better.
Defense can help lead the Cardinals there. This one should be better.
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING: WHY TRADE JOSE MARTINEZ?
QUESTION: What have you heard about trading Jose Martinez to San Francisco for reliever Will Smith?
BENFRED: GM Michael Girsch said the Cardinals have talked to multiple teams about Jose Martinez. Some of the deals revolve around relievers. At least one has discussed prospects. San Francisco is a team that would make sense. The Cardinals, per Girsch, have deals on the drawing board that range from one phone call away to rough outlines of potential deals.
The Cardinals seem rather determined to move Martinez. I'm not sure that's such a great idea. In my opinion, he's the best option as a right-field starter. And while I understand the reasons ($50 million being a big one) for giving Fowler another shot, I like Martinez as next man up if it doesn't work. He can't do that if he's playing elsewhere. Not sure he's less valuable than a reliever, especially if that reliever has little control left. Martinez is cheap and under contract through 2023.
To a follow-up comment about Martinez's value, BenFred replied:
Jose Martinez has proven to be a steady, strong hitter who has no true defensive home on the field. In some ways, he's Carpenter-like, though Carpenter is a better defensive player than Martinez. Jose is a real risk out there. I hate to say it, because he works his tail off, but he's a DH.
That, I think more than anything, is where the Cardinals are with this. They love his offense. They know his defense isn't going to be anything different than what it is. It's a wonky fit and they already have a somewhat wonky fit in Carpenter. So, see what he brings on the trade market to see if you can get a better fit for your team as constructed. The problem will be getting the right return because of his offensive plus, his affordability and control and his profile as a guy who really only fits with an American League team.
My worry is not trading Martinez as much as settling for something that is not a fair trade. The Cardinals should avoid that. He's too god to give away, and this can't be a Matt Adams, it's-better-for-him-this-way kind of deal.
LEVEL OF HARPER INTEREST AS MEETINGS ENDED?
QUESTION: Are the Cardinals currently showing any interest in Bryce Harper?
BENFRED: Not really, no. They have met with Scott Boras, but he has multiple clients, including left reliever Zach Britton, who is of interest to the Cardinals. The Cardinals did not meet with Harper in Las Vegas. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. was not the reported mystery owner who flew out here to meet with Harper.
The Cardinals' interest level would likely change if Harper and Boras were willing to do a shorter deal, but if a team is willing to go above and beyond and give them what they want out of the gates, it won't happen.
Follow-up: Stunned that Mozeliak didn't at least have a conversation with Harper. Seems to be the m.o. with Mozeliak -- fill one hole (with Goldschmidt), then just say "that's enough." Then the team is up and down all year.
BENFRED: As for the Cardinals not talking to Harper directly, there's nothing for them to talk to him about at this moment. They are not willing to give him what he wants at this point. Unless something changes, he will sign elsewhere without talking to the Cardinals. If something changes, talks could happen. Simple as that.
The Cardinals are not positioning themselves as heavy pursuers of Harper, because they are not. They are interested in Harper on their terms, which means they are unlikely to get Harper. The Yankees seem to be taking the same approach, though they have a general manager who flat out says it, with Star War references.
WHY BET ON A REBOUND BY FOWLER?
QUESTION: Why do you think the Cardinals want to bet on a rebound with Dexter Fowler? Are they just hoping it works, or they are still comfortable with a platoon with O'Neill if it does not.
BENFRED: Because they signed him to a five-year deal worth more than $80 million. That's why. They aren't betting on a rebound as much as continuing to hope the bet they made winds up not looking as bad is it does right now. Sure, there are other factors. They like Fowler. They want to see it work. But if Fowler was owed $5 million, we would not be having this discussion. O'Neill is still in the picture sure. Same for Jose Martinez, as long as he's on the team. Adolis Garcia exists and other outfielders are on the rise.
I'll stress this: It makes no sense, zero, for the Cardinals to say anything other than what they said here this week. Fowler is untrade-able at the moment. No one wants that contract. The Cardinals, as mentioned previously, have their stance on Harper. It's not going to change unless his ask does, and it might not. O'Neill is going to show up working to win a job. Same for the other prospects. What the team said about Fowler makes no difference to them.
But for Fowler, an endorsement matters. He pays attention to what the team says, and what the vibe is. Some guys don't. He does. The Cardinals are hoping a positive stance and renewed opportunity works. And they really do hope it does. They owe him a lot of money through 2021.
The better question is the one the Cardinals are not willing to talk about right now: What if it doesn't work? And how long can they let it play out before moving in another direction, whether that's starting Martinez, turning to O'Neill or some sort of a blend between the two?
Shildt said he wants to see positive signs from Fowler in spring. Not numbers necessarily, but good signs at the plate and in the field, signs Fowler is back to being the 2017 version of himself everyone was excited about. The Cardinals' stance is understandable. So is the reluctance of those who watched Fowler last season to buy it -- until they see differently.
BUILDING A BETTER BULLPEN
COMMENT: If the Cards can get Britton or Miller (I prefer Britton at this point), and another lesser LH reliever, the 2019 bullpen would be in pretty good shape.
BENFRED: I'm Britton over Miller as well, which almost certainly means Miller is the better bet. I won't pretend to be an expert at predicting that volatile position. I'm the guy who thought the late addition of Holland was a good pick-up. Oof. So, I'll own that and try to be smarter moving forward.
These additions are gambles, especially when they are multi-year deals. But the Cardinals have a big need, and it pays to play in that market, as Mozeliak said. I think they are going to have to bite the bullet on one.
I think Genesis Cabrera could wind up with a role. He was good after the switch to reliever and has had a strong summer league.
For what it's worth, every mention of the bullpen plan by the Cardinals has referenced multiple moves. Plural. Always. I do think it's more than one add there.
CARDINALS' PLAN FOR A CLOSER?
QUESTION: What are the Cardinals plans for closer this season?
BENFRED: They're keeping options very open at this point, for smart reasons. Not having a set closer makes it easier to recruit free-agent relievers who want a bite of that apple.
The Cardinals stop short of saying, if the season started today, that it would be closer by committee. That's because they have Jordan Hicks. But they could sign a more proven option, and they don't hate the idea of Hicks, 22, hearing he needs to earn it.
JOE KELLY REUNION CANCELED
QUESTION: Seems like Joe Kelly signed for a fair market deal with LA. Surely the Cards could have gotten him for a little less with an offer to close and the familiarity he has with STL. Do you know if the Cardinals made an offer?
BENFRED: Jeurys Familia got 3 years, $30 million from Mets. Kelly got 3 years, $25-ish million from Dodgers. I don't know if the Cardinals are willing to go there for a righthander. For a lefty? Yeah, they might have to.
Kelly was on the Cardinals' radar and there was at least some sense he might be interested in a Cardinals return, but never got sense there was much real traction. Lefties are the focus on big-spending for the bullpen.
Also, Kelly is going home by signing with the Dodgers (he's from Anaheim). That counts for something.
WHAT'S THE PLAN FOR CARLOS?
QUESTION: Haven't heard as much about C-Mart being traded. Do you think he's on the opening day roster?
BENFRED: Sure seems like it at this point. There is continued discussion and debate about if he would be better in the rotation or bullpen. Spring training should sort that out.
If Carlos is on point, he's a starter. If he can't stay healthy or continues to be up-and-down with reliability issues, he's better off in the bullpen for multiple reasons. Stuff plays there. And he has to show up at the ballpark every day prepared to pitch, as opposed to a starter's schedule.
ANOTHER WINTER WARM-UP WITHOUT FOWLER?
QUESTION: Dexter Fowler has plans to attend a Cubs' event but won't attend the Cardinals' Winter Warm-Up? What gives?
BENFRED: He wasn't on the initial schedule sent out for Winter Warm-Up. That could change by the time it rolls around. Girsch was asked about Fowler not being on the initial schedule, and did not have an answer as to why he wasn't.
I'm not sure of the specific signing you mention, but I doubt it's Cubs-specific, as in connected to the Cubs in any official fashion. If Fowler does do fan interaction stuff in or near Chicago, he's going to be presented as World Series champion Dexter Fowler, part of the curse-breaking Cubs ... (who later became a Cardinal). He's always going to be revered there. That happens when you help snap a drought like that.
My suggestion to him, though I'm sure he does not give a rip what I think, would be to consider avoiding stuff like this, for this exact reason.
Follow-up: I consider myself a rational fan, but Fowler not coming to ANY Winter Warm-Ups since his signing does bug me a little bit. That being said, he seems like a nice guy and I'm rooting for him to have a comeback season.
BENFRED: That's fair. I can share this. His absence the first time was tied to the snowstorm that scrambled travel arrangements for multiple players. His absence the second time was related to a family gathering he had scheduled. There is the context we don't have about him not being on the initial schedule for this year's event.
I agree with you, that it's good for players to be at these things. It matters to the fans. It matters to the team. I'm not making excuses for the guy. I'm just saying we need more info on his plans for this year, and comparing it to a separate autograph session he's doing in Chicago isn't entirely fair. I would not blame him for feeling more love from Chicago fans than St. Louis fans these days, but putting yourself in a spot where people can draw conclusions might not be the best decision. I'd like more details.
QUESTION: How is manager Mike Shildt viewed by the players and other coaches? How do you envision his first full year as manager going?
BENFRED: By Cardinals players: They love him.
By other players: They don't really know much about him. Not a former major leaguer. Spent years on the minor league side, so unless they came across him in that fashion, he's more of an unknown. New utility man Drew Robinson, for example, knew Shildt from crossing paths in Class AAA. Younger guys are more likely to know Shildt from that world.
By the other coaches: They respect him. He's paid his dues. He has the endorsement of TLR and many other veterans. He's obsessed with baseball, open to and interested in where the game is headed. He can connect with the new wave and the veterans.
MEGA-DEALS THAT MAKE YOU GO 'HMMM ...'
COMMENT: Pujols is a shell of his former self and still owed $97 million. Tulowitzki was paid $60 million by the Jays and didn't produce much, and is still owed $38 million. The Cards have had some misses, but never on the scale of these mega deals. As much as I like Harper and see the fit, it's crazy to ignore the gigantic costs on the back end of these deals.
BENFRED: I'm pro Harper. Have been. Will continue to be. Never thought it was realistic that Cards would add both Harper and Goldschmidt, so I have tabled the crusade, but I still think Harper is a transformational player. Time will tell.
That said, you are correct to point out the misses. The Stanton deal is starting to look a bit scary. The NL Central has five nine-figure contracts as of today: Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Jon Lester, Yu Darvish and Jason Heyward.
Some of those are ... ouch.
QUESTION: We’ve covered what owners and teams think of Machado’s comments, but have you heard anything from players? Did they seem to think it was blown out of proportion, or were they annoyed at the lackadaisical attitude?
BENFRED: What really made rippled across the game, reaching owners and players alike, were the comments of Christian Yelich. He lowered a blow torch to Machado and his antics, criticizing him as a player and a man.
Yelich is universally respected as a pro. He's a big voice for the players. He's the National League MVP. For him to come at Machado so publicly and so hard, people looked up and said, whoa. The Cardinals included.
DINNER AT DEXTER'S
QUESTION: Any info on how dinner at Dexter Fowler’s went?
BENFRED: Not sure why it could have gone anything but great, considering the Cardinals have spent all week endorsing Fowler and taking arrows for it. He should be pretty pleased.
This dinner was not some big moment, Girsch said yesterday. Fowler's a social guy. He's here, home from Bud Norris' wedding in Hawaii, and offered to host. What was said here about him this week was not related to the dinner. Same things would have been said if meetings were in Florida.
IMPACT OF BAINES' ELECTION TO HALL OF FAME?
QUESTION: What impact will the election of Harold Baines (above left, with Lee Smith) have on the future of the HOF? Will it lead to the dreaded "Big Hall" or "Hall of Very Good"? Or will it inspire enough backlash that the HOF and future "era" committees will try to avoid controversy by tightening their standards?
BENFRED: My hope is it will result in those who cover the game realizing how ugly it is to participate in a system that lifts a man up, then turns on him and attacks him the moment he gets his big day. Debate is as much a part of baseball as the bases. We disagree. We argue. We have to do something in between pitches. But the nastiness with which the discussion about Baines has been conducted is an embarrassment for many who have participated in it. The writers and veterans committee is not perfect, but it seems to be the best we have, at this point in time. I understand there will be debate about guys who should be in and guys who should not. I get it. But to turn the day of someone getting the news into a takedown really bothered me, and I hope it bothered other people, too. We should do better. We should be better.
I don't think I answered your question. Sorry. But I feel better now.
As for the impact, I think we tend to jump to these conclusions too quickly. Writers are reluctant to change their stance. They are either big hall or small hall. Tim Brown of Yahoo said it best when we were talking about it the other night. He's a small hall guy. He said everyone is now saying everyone will get in, when he already thought everyone was getting in.
That's why we have the sausage-making. It's the messy process of coming up with the best we can do with the best process we have at that time. There will be changes as we go along, as there should be.