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Ben Frederickson is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You can follow him on Twitter (Ben_Fred), Instagram (benfredpd) and Facebook (BenFredPD).

St. Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers

Harrison Bader dives to catch a line drive by Milwaukee's Eric Sogard in the April 10 game at Busch Stadium. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

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.


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