QUESTION: Is Nolan Arenado back on the table for the Cards? Or would the Rockies have to eat a lot of the money for the Cards to consider?
BENFRED: A few important things have happened since the last time we got together here.
1. Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt said at Winter Warm-Up that the team is not aggressively pursuing an impact addition via trade or free agency before spring training. He also said he would not feel comfortable taking on, say a $30+ million per season player with the current payroll -- unless there is some significant cash offloading that comes in that deal to help balance it out. Reading between the lines, it did not sound like the Cardinals were thinking their interest in Arenado was going to become a deal, in part because of the Rockies' asking price -- something that seems to be a common trend among teams that had discussions with Colorado about Arenado. At one point during Winter Warm-Up, Mozeliak specifically mentioned that one team tried to poach the Cardinals' pitching prospects, something he wasn't fond of.
2. The Rockies front office told the Denver Post that Nolan Arenado trade talks were being tabled, and that he was going to head to spring training as the third baseman. That meshes with what we heard on our end -- that the Rockies were shopping Arenado but did not seem all that motivated to make a deal, considering their asking prices.
3. Arenado fired back, telling multiple media outlets that he feels disrespected by the front office, not specifically for the trade discussions but also just in general. This part is important, because players with public riffs with the front office tend to get moved along if those issues can't be smoothed over. Example: Giancarlo Stanton.
4. Marcell Ozuna accepted a one-year, $18 million deal to play for the Braves. Assuming he took the best deal available, that means the Cardinals were unwilling to move up $200,000 from the qualifying offer Ozuna rejected earlier this offseason, and of course drop the conditional draft pick. That might tell us as much about what the front office -- not the manager and the team -- thought about Ozuna as much as anything. It also tells us the self-imposed payroll constrictions are pretty tight.
I've said all along that I don't expect Ozuna back and that I don't expect the Cards to pull off a trade for Arenado. DeWitt's description made it that much more unlikely.
Why would the Rockies accept potentially dead money contracts like Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler in a deal for a superstar? They should want elite prospects.
I will continue to play my role as Debbie Downer, and point to the things the Cardinals have put in their own way of getting a deal like this done — DeWitt's view of the payroll, Carpenter's contract and existence and public pledge, Arenado's opt-out, etc.
No one needs to sell me on the upside or Arenado. I'm not sure the Cardinals do enough to factor in the amount of good will and energy a splash like that would create in their fan base.
I hope it happens. Pay the price and go after another ring for Molina and Wainwright. Sign me up.
But based on the track record and the comments made here in St. Louis, it seems to me that it's going to take a lot more than ticked-off text messages from Arenado to lead to Arenado manning third base for the Birds.
QUESTION: Have the Rockies backed themselves into a Nolan Arenado corner? Door seemed closed, but he might have just jarred it open?
BENFRED: Mozeliak spent most of Winter Warm-Up saying things like "no doors are closed" and "no lines are drawn" so I'd say no doors are closed is a fair statement. Especially after Arenado called out his general manager Jeff Bridich.
DeWitt sounded a little less optimistic when speaking in general about the kind of trade that would land Arenado.
Doesn't mean it couldn't happen.
And things did change after DeWitt made those comments -- specifically Rockies saying trade talks were off, and Arenado flaming the front office for its "disrespect."
What we don't know if those trade talks could resume now that Arenado has gone public with his beef.
There are chapters. The book has taken a turn. Still hard for me to see it ending with Arenado in St. Louis, because of the hurdle the Cardinals have put in front of themselves. But if Colorado will take one or two of those hurdles? Maybe.
It's one thing to trade the face of the franchise and best third baseman in baseball. It's another to trade the disgruntled superstar who wants out. The latter is a little easier to sell to fans, a make-the-best-out-of-it situation. Arenado took a step yesterday from former, toward the latter.
Honestly? The Rockies should just fire their GM.
Photo: Nolan Arenado was all smiles at a press conference last February to announce his $260 million contract. He was seated next to GM Jeff Bridich (purple shirt) and manager Bud Black. (AP Photo)
QUESTION: Can you elaborate on DeWitt's comments on the Cardinals' payroll and why that would keep the chances for an Arenado deal down?
BENFRED: I'll try. It won't be received well.
The Cardinals could throw around more money if they choose to, but they are not, as their critics call them, cheap. They're a business that prides itself on sustained success, and part of that plan includes setting a budget and more or less sticking to it. The budget changes every year, and it has grown over the years, but they tend to more or less stick to it when it's set.
Because of some of the regrettable commitments the Cardinals have made, and some expensive ones they will hope to make in the future (Flaherty for example), this was not going to be a big-spending offseason.
DeWitt said the payroll is projected at $170 with who the Cardinals have now, considering call-ups, etc.
"That's a pretty strong payroll," he said. "We were sixth in baseball last year. Pushing the envelope to be honest. We were 11th in revenue last year. If there is great opportunity elsewhere to move it up a little bit, we would take a look at that."
That led to a question about Arenado, without mentioning his name. As in, could the payroll increase by $35 million this season?
"That's not moving up a little bit," DeWitt answered. "We really can't be in that kind of a range. Unlike a lot of clubs, we have a lot of obligations. We built the stadium ourself. We have roughly a $20 million mortgage payment every year. Our cap backs now are $10 million. I shouldn't even say our market size. I'll say our revenue base. Not many teams have that obligations, if any. Bigger markets, they do, because they spend a lot of money. Once you get into our category, not many have an obligation near that."
So, if the Cards traded for an Arenado-type addition, would money have to go back the other way? "No question," DeWitt said.
Expenses that don't often get brought up, but ones the Cardinals don't ever forget about, include annual stadium debt service and capital expenditures, international spending, player development and, yes, Ballpark Village.
One more thing: I don't think Arenado's contract was the only thing standing in the way of a deal when the Cardinals first had those discussions with Colorado. The asking price of talent from Colorado was also incredibly high.
Now w'll see if the ask changes after Arenado voiced his frustration with the Rockies front office.
QUESTION: Did Mr. DeWitt mention during his Winter Warm-Up comments that the Cardinals' payroll is problematic because of its self-inflicted mistakes (terrible trades, bad free-agent signings, questionable extensions)? And, did he say that if the team intends to hold the line on spending, that the fans likewise should hold the line on their spending? Finally, why would a team with obvious resources not be more willing to acquire a "generational" type player like Nolan Arenado? Give up prospects, then go find more.
BENFRED: The Cardinals are not in the habit of pointing out contracts they regret while players on their team are still under those contracts. What good does that do? That doesn't mean we can't use our eyes and brains.
There are some contracts on the books that have handcuffed the Cardinals to some degree. They know this. We know this.
Fans should spend their money as they see fit. Every year, I hear in these chats about how fans should start boycotting games to send a message to the front office to be bigger, bolder, better.
Those pledges are right in the sense that the bottom line is the best way to send a message.
But I can tell you that at Winter Warm-Up, I saw a lot of fans who were happy to be back in the postseason last year and excited about some of the young players the Cardinals seem poised to turn to instead of bringing in more free agents. I know this because I heard them say it into microphones during the event's Q&A. I know this because I got just as many emails pleading that the team moves on from Marcell Ozuna as I got asking why the Cardinals won't bring him back.
The Cardinals don't view prospects as simply trade chips. They value them and see them as THE most crucial part of their sustained success model. And they've flipped quite a few as of late. For Ozuna. For Goldschmidt. And perhaps for Arenado still -- if the asking price in Colorado goes down AND the Rockies will perhaps take one of those regrettable contracts off the Cardinals' books.
This example perhaps captures the difference. DeWitt is stoked about the new lefty prospect from Tampa, Matthew Liberatore. Some fans have just assumed he's going to be flipped for Arenado. I wouldn't.
QUESTION: What is your take on Matt Carpenter's "do whatever is best for the team" comment? Was he saying he would switch positions or something more drastic, like waive his no-trade clause?
BENFRED: He has said both.
P-D colleague Derrick Goold reported days ago that Carpenter's desire is to remain a Cardinal, but that he would not flex his no-trade protection to block a deal if the Cardinals felt they were better off without him.
Carpenter said Monday that he has always been open to play any position that is asked of him, and that has not changed. There have not been talks of him moving from third at this point.
I don't think the Cardinals would make such a public display of their faith in him, then ship him out this close to spring training. Remember, they gave the guy a regrettable extension because they were determined to have him end his career in a Cardinals uniform. Their dedication to Carpenter is high, and that seems to be getting lost in the Arenado discussion.
COMMENT: If a car has one good tire and three bald tires, moving the bald tires around to different wheels doesn't make them any less bald or help the car perform on that one good tire. Just like moving Paul DeJong from the 8th spot or Matt Carpenter from the bench to the middle of the order isn't going to make Paul Goldschmidt and the offense better. Cardinals fans are loyal, not dumb. Is this a fair analogy?
BENFRED: I'll play.
The Cardinals are selling a plan that says those tires were not bald, but had leaks, and that those leaks can and will be patched, because the tires have a lot of good tread left on them, and they can't be certain the new, expensive tires will hold up any better than the hopefully-repaired tires they already have on a payment plan.
It's not a sexy sell, I get that. Especially with the big questions about the mechanic, hitting coach Jeff Albert, that are lingering at this moment.
It's easier to believe some tires will bounce back — get it? — than others.
I think Paul Goldschmidt will be better. I think Dexter Fowler will be about the same. I don't know what to think about Matt Carpenter. And who knows what to expect in left field?
In this scenario, the air is hope. It's being pumped in with a powerful compressor. We'll know soon enough if it's more substantial than hot air.
QUESTION: How concerned should we be about the performance of Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright? Will the Cardinals bench them if needed? Should the Cards really give Molina an extension this spring?
BENFRED: I've written this before, but if I'm the Cardinals, I tell Molina I would roll Molina into a year-by-year deal once this season ends, and figure out the details after the 2020 season. He made it clear Monday that he's not going to play for any other team. He's not going to go into free agency. There's no reason to get a contract on the books when you can't be sure how an aging catcher is going to hold up and perform.
If Molina is healthy and can perform, the Cardinals want him catching. There's an unwritten agreement there that is as strong as any contract. Both sides should just cross that bridge when they get to it -- in part because Molina's opinion on when and how thing will end seems to change often. The strategy has worked fine with Wainwright, though Molina would be getting paid more in his setup.
Totally fair to have concerns about the veteran pitcher and catcher. They're 37 and 38. The smartest bet in baseball is betting on old players to break down and not play well. Because eventually, you're going to be right. No one thought Wainwright would hold his spot last season. He did more than that. He is aiming to pitch better on the road. Molina wants to prove it was his hand, not his age, that weakened his bat last year.
The doubts about their age is, in part, what drives them. I'm rooting for them. There is still gas in those tanks.
Neither guy is getting benched unless he's hurt or very obviously outperformed by someone beneath him on the depth chart. Both could happen, sure. But if it's a relatively close call, legacy is a tiebreaker, and then some.
QUESTION: One big positive and one big negative from Cardinals Winter Warm-Up?
BENFRED: One big positive: Carlos Martinez looks stout and strong. Noticeably so.
One big negative: No Jeff Albert. Hitting coaches don't usually come to Winter Warm-Up. But hitting coaches are not usually key figures entering a season because the hitting was the team's worst component last season. And hitting coaches are not often directly linked to an electronic sign-stealing scandal that has engulfed baseball.
I thought Albert should have showed up and addressed this stuff. Instead Mozeliak and Shildt had to answer for him. He has not been named in the report. The Cardinals don't think he will be punished. He has told the team he did not know and did not participate in any of the wrongdoing.
Still it's a bit hard to buy that Albert was in the dugout in 2018, and he didn't realize the team was misusing replay to decode signs and relay that information to hitters. The Cardinals made a point to talk about how they do things the right way. That opened them up to cracks about the hacking scandal, and the fact they are standing by Albert, who was not there to speak for himself.
QUESTION: Looks like Mizzou hoops is going to miss the NCAA Tournament again. Is Cuonzo Martin's seat getting hot?
BENFRED: It does look like the Tigers will miss the NCAA Tournament.
It doesn't look like Martin is on the hot seat -- at least not to those who have taken the time to read his contract.
Here's the breakdown from Dave Matter, who by now has this copy-and-pasted to his weekly chats:
Missouri cannot legally fire Martin without cause until after the 2020-21 season. He's protected through the first four seasons of his deal by virtue of winning 20 games and making the NCAA Tournament his first year at MU. That's how atrocious this job and program were viewed when there was an opening the last time. Martin was able to negotiate a protection clause that guaranteed he couldn't be fired until after year four as long as one of his first four teams hits one of two milestones: 20 wins or makes the NCAAs.
(He could be fired "for cause" at any point during his contract, but that would require NCAA violations, illegal activity, etc.)
Now, could Mizzou and Martin negotiate their way out of the deal before the end of year four? That’s possible with every contract, but Martin would have all the financial leverage in that situation — and Mizzou isn’t exactly rolling in the kind of dough it takes to squirm out of his deal.
After next season (2020-21), Missouri would owe Martin a buyout of $6 million if it wanted to fire him. Again, that’s a lot of money.
In other words, he's not getting fired after this season. Even without the protection clause, I don't think he would get fired anyway. He's going to get more time than Kim Anderson to revive this program.
I'll add a few things you can take or leave. Few coaches have had one of the team's most important players go down with injury in each of his first three seasons. Few coaches have had this happen while trying to push what had become the least competitive Power 5 program in the nation out of a deep and dark hole. Few coaches are committed to doing things the way Martin does, on the up-and-up, all the time, no shortcuts allowed in recruiting or practice or treatment of players. Few people seem to remember this team played in an NCAA Tournament in his first season, something that was amazing considering the loss of MPJ and the state of the program he took over.
Martin needs to land some of the biggest fish from St. Louis. He's gotten good players from his home area but not the best yet. When he gets the Porter Sr. contract off the book, he needs to find a way to improve his staff. He's earned criticism, no doubt. But he's not getting fired soon.
QUESTION: What was your opinion on the Blues social media pages promoting the Chiefs, a franchise that voted for the Rams to leave St. Louis?
BENFRED: Nice to know some out there remember how the Chiefs leadership voted. Good recall.
I don't speak for the Blues and have learned to step out of the social-media ombudsman role, but I'll offer this -- I think it was more related to the Chiefs players who came over to support the Blues during the Cup run. Mahomes and Kelce showed up and drank beers on the big screen. Yippee.
Personally, I would rather see the Blues and Cardinals give some more love to the BattleHawks. The BattleHawks had a table at Winter Warm-Up this weekend, trying to build support and meet folks.
Didn't see one for the Chiefs.
And another thing about the Chiefs trying to increase their footprint in St. Louis. They haven't really tried beyond getting games on TV. They're certainly getting a bigger fan base because of the Rams departure and because of their success, but it's not like they are working for more fans in St. Louis.
I'm not a Chiefs basher. My childhood team growing up. I've got family in KC. Thrilled for Coach Reid and for my dear friends at the Star who get to cover this thing. But let's not reverse engineer a narrative that the Chiefs did a thing to help St. Louis keep its team or have attempted to recruit former Rams fans since. Because neither are true.
Chiefs owner Clark Hunt has said he didn't want the Rams to leave, but his track record shows he was the only member of the six-person NFL committee on relocation to vote against suggesting the Chargers and Raiders should share a stadium in Carson.
QUESTION: It's been a few days since the dust settled on SLU's heartbreaking loss to Dayton. How did it settle?
BENFRED: That loss hurt their postseason chances considerably. A home win against No. 13 Dayton would have been a very nice bump for a resumé that lacks good wins.
Winning against Dayton on the road would make up for it. Beating VCU at home would help.
We once thought as many as 3-4 A-10 teams could get in but the non-conference portion of the schedule really dulled that prediction.
It's a 2-team league, maybe 3 if a surprise takes the A-10 tournament, like SLU did last year.
As for next season, excitement is right. But my goodness, if the team does not figure out how to shoot free throws and make layups and dunks, SLU will continue to have many of these on-the-wrong-side-of-the-edge moments.
QUESTION: Baseball has a simple fix to electronic sign-stealing. Mic up the catchers. Give an earpiece to the pitchers. Done. Why is this taking so long?
BENFRED: Earpieces are a simple fix until you realize the batter can hear the catcher behind the plate, and until some team hacks into the frequency of the earpieces.
No team has a problem with a guy standing on second base picking up the signs, or the third base coach spotting them. That's fair. That's competition.
Using a center field camera that no one knows is there to do it is different. Clearly.
A catcher should know to tighten things up or change signs when a man is on base. A catcher should know to look out for that third base coach leaning around to catch a look. A catcher should not have to wear a tin-foil catcher's mask because he is afraid of Big Brother watching him from somewhere out there in the outfield.
My take? The best way to fix it is to focus on playing baseball during the game. Put an umpire in the press box to handle all replay issues. Remove the challenge. Let the umpire in the sky make sure his colleagues make the right calls, not the managers. No iPads in the dugout. No smart tech in the dugout. No replay room available during the game. Scout like heck before it. Analyze like heck after it. All the tech you want before and after. All the cameras you want during the game -- but no review or live-stream of them to the dugout in any way, shape or form.