Rounding up the hot topics from columnist Ben Frederickson's weekly chat with St. Louis sports fans.
CAN THIS BULLPEN ROSTER CUT IT?
QUESTION: From the right side of the Cardinals' bullpen, it doesn't look much different than it did to start the 2018 season, when the results were shaky — and that was with a very good Norris. So why should fans feel comfortable with it right now?
BENFRED: I think it will look different, when you look closely. Here's the amount of MLB games the following righthanded bullpen options pitched in last season:
Ryan Helsley: Zero
Alex Reyes: 1
Daniel Poncedeleon: 11
Luke Gregerson: 17
Dakota Hudson: 26
John Gant: 26
Dominic Leone: 29
For context, John Brebbia, who spent a good chunk of last season riding the Memphis shuttle, made 45 MLB appearances.
So, the names above might not be new, but their impact on a season could wind up feeling like it.
That said, yes, the Cardinals could afford to add more proven bullpen security, either right or lefthanded. That's one area that could be ripe for bargains as free-agent relievers begin to feel anxious about finding a job before spring training starts.
These guys know what happened to the other late-arriving pitchers last season. Rough seasons followed, for the most part.
CARDINALS' REGULAR LINEUP FOR 2019?
QUESTION: If there are no more additions to the offense, your 2019 Cardinals batting order is ...
BENFRED: If I had to win a game today, it would look like this . . .
1. Carpenter, 3B
2. DeJong, SS
3. Goldschmidt, 1B
4. Ozuna, LF
5. Martinez, RF
6. Molina, C
7. Wong, 2B
8. Bader, CF
Some notes: I would not hate to see the speedsters after the pitcher, if feeling zany. I would not hate seeing Martinez batting second.
The Cardinals seem interested in Goldschmidt batting second, and there is an analytical argument to hit your best all-around hitter there. I'm not opposed to it, necessarily. If Ozuna does not thump, he should be freed from the cleanup spot.
Most importantly, I don't think this is a realistic lineup, because I imagine Fowler will be in the opening day lineup. Big question is, where does he hit? I would be a bit surprised if he starts the season hitting ahead of Molina, without a rather impressive spring.
NO INTEREST IN EATON — NOT AFTER PLEDGE TO FOWLER
QUESTION: If Bryce Harper goes back to Washington, the Nats could flip Adam Eaton for starting pitching. The Cardinals have been linked to Eaton in the past. Any chance they could be again?
BENFRED: I wish the Nats were looking to move third baseman Anthony Rendon. Eaton is interesting because of the history you cite, but I interpreted the Cardinals' pledge to Dexter Fowler as genuine. I don't think they are interested in replacing him before he gets a shot. Would be surprised if they did. Not saying I agree with that strategy. I think he's the biggest potential weakness in the lineup. But, it would be unlike the Cardinals to go all-in on Fowler, then pull the rug out from beneath him.
And they have options to turn to in Jose Martinez (as long as he's on the team) and Tyler O'Neill. Harper seemed, to me, to be the only outfielder worth the trouble of clearing the space for.
HARPER OR MACHADO TO STL? DON'T BANK ON IT
COMMENTS: The Cards have been trying to get that elusive right fielder since the untimely death of Oscar Taveras. After this year, and after Ozuna and Goldy seek free agency, this team will still be looking for that right fielder and then some. There's a right fielder available right now that would occupy that space for several years — and just might entice the other two to stay, or at least might attract future free agents.
BENFRED: You don't have to sell me on Bryce Harper. Check the clips. I beat that drum more than anyone. Would love it if the Cardinals made the splash. Just don't think they have it in them, or see it in Harper, to make it happen. I've wondered if Machado might be of more interest at this point. The Cardinals have indicated they like the idea of that long-term contract better, but they have also indicated they were rather turned off by his postseason antics. The market for Machado seems rather defined at the moment, and the Cardinals are not in it, unless they are the so-called mystery team. That's really not their nature.
I'll repeat what I said before. They said they wanted one premier bat. They got one in Goldschmidt, and plan to extend him if possible. When is the last time they said they needed one top-shelf item and then got two? Don't bank on it.
MOURNING OSCAR TAVERAS ... AND MOVING ON
COMMENT: All of our lineup problems go back to the tragic day in October 2014.
BENFRED: I say this with respect and don't want it to be twisted the wrong way, but the loss of Oscar Taveras cannot be tied to the team's performance forever.
He might have been a star. He might not have been. He might have exceeded expectations, or never come close to meeting them. He might have been injured and out of the game. It's impossible to know, and it's 2019. Not suggesting, at all, that he should be forgotten or moved on from. At all. I hope you get my point.
X-FACTOR FOR THE CARDINALS?
QUESTION: Is Marcell Ozuna THE key player for the Cardinals this year? If he can elevate his production back to where it was in 2017, that takes the lineup from good to great. Not sure anyone else on the team has quite that much potential.
BENFRED: It's impossible to pick one, but you can make that case, sure. The status of Ozuna's right shoulder and how it impacts his swing is one of the biggest question marks of spring training, without a doubt. I'd also list Fowler and Goldschmidt as big X-factors.
TIME TO JUMP ON THE BLUES' BANDWAGON?
QUESTION: Last week you said CBS having the Blues playoff odds at 17.3 percent was too high. So, what are your thoughts on them now being at 36 percent?
BENFRED: Better. But using your trusty CBS analytics, five teams in front of the Blues in the division have a better than 67 percent chance. You just want to see more of the same positive signs. When you have not won more than three games in a row all season until January, you can't expect people to jump aboard the all-is-well wagon just yet.
They're playing better. They also entered Tuesday night's game, an overtime loss, sitting sixth in their division with an 8-6 record over the past month. Back flips come later.
JAKE OR JORDAN IN GOAL?
COMMENT: Blues can get back in the postseason mix if they give Binnington the majority of the starts. It's a small sample size, but he has looked steady and stays in position. They may have won with Allen on Monday, but he was still giving up way too many rebounds and often did not know where the puck was.
BENFRED: If recent history has taught us anything, it's to not complain about a Jake Allen win. Accept it. Celebrate it. But don't pick it apart.
We agree on Binnington. Play the hot hand. Nothing to lose. If he craps out, go back to Jake. It's not hard.
MIZZOU VS. SLU AT ENTERPRISE: WHY NOT?
QUESTION: What is it going to take to get a game at Enterprise Center between SLU and Mizzou?
BENFRED: The coaches have to want to play the game. Simple as that. In college basketball, coaches have much more influence on the schedule than, say, football. Athletics directors control football scheduling. Coaches control basketball scheduling. It has turned into a science: how do I balance a good record and a tough enough schedule to make the NCAA Tournament? It's a shame, really, because the math does not seem to care much about common sense regional rivalry opportunities.
That said, Cuonzo Martin and Travis Ford seem to be working toward something, quietly. The notion has been squashed quickly in the past. That is no longer the case. Ford and Martin are friendly, and Ford's son is even a walk-on with the Tigers this season. I think it will happen eventually, though I'm not sure it would be a neutral site in St. Louis considering the Braggin' Rights rivalry. There would be nothing wrong with a home-and-home. Both fan bases could make the trip to both campuses.
IMPACT OF REACHING FREE AGENCY SOONER
QUESTION: There currently seems to be a push to grant players free agency sooner, which would skew more dollars toward star players and away from the average player. Might that have an effect on those average players not wanting to see the stars eased out before they want to retire?
BENFRED: I'm not sure I agree with your opinion that reaching free agency sooner would help star players and hurt non-star players. I guess it depends on how you define a star. Bryce Harper is going to make a ton of money -- in part -- because he was so good, he got to free agency at 26 years old. Same as Manny Machado. They are clearly star players.
But what about guys like Jose Martinez and Tommy Pham? They are not star players. They are going to reach free agency well beyond what baseball considers their prime. If they had fewer arbitration years, they would get better contract offers when they reached free agency, because their age would not be working against them as much as it will be when they get to FA.
SIZING UP THE NL CENTRAL
QUESTION: How would you rate the NL Central as it currently stands? I don't think the Reds will be higher than 4th, but that offense could cause major problems for the contenders, especially in Cincy's ballpark.
BENFRED: If the season started today, I guess I would go something along the lines of . . .
I think we are probably underestimating the Brewers once again.
I think the Cubs, with an edge, are a scary team.
I think the Cardinals are better today than they have been the past three seasons.
They're all kind of jammed up there at the top.
But below them, there are no tankers. The second tier is competitive. The Reds' offense was loaded before Kemp and Puig, but pitching remains a concern. The Pirates could be sneaky good.
WAINO OR FOWLER: WHO HAS THE LONGER LEASH?
QUESTION: Waino vs Fowler: Who has the longer leash this season? Strictly talking about a starting pitcher and right fielder, respectively. I have real concerns that Shildt will have a difficult time displacing either if they struggle.
BENFRED: That is a very fair question, and to be honest, it was one we discussed today at our brainstorming session for the season preview that will be reported and written during spring training. Shildt had a clear plan when he took over last season. He worked to regain the trust of the veterans. It was a long-term play as much as it was a short-term, win-now move. And, looking back, it was probably the right call.
But if the veterans falter in a win-now season, it's a mistake to trust them for too long. Ideally, they don't fail and this question fades. But if Ozuna can't cut it at cleanup, and Fowler does not rebound to his usual form, then we are going to learn something about Shildt.
TO DH OR NOT TO DH?
QUESTION: Did you realize you were kicking such a hornet's nest by suggesting the National League should adopt the designated hitter?
BENFRED: I've found the anti-DH crowd is passionate and loud, but I do not think it's as big as it likes to think it is. I received a few emails and tweets from folks saying they would stop watching Cardinals baseball if the NL adopted the DH. Respectfully, that seems bogus to me. I asked our web gurus to create a poll at STLToday.com. It's not scientific, but it's something. So far, it has more than 2,000 responses. 14 percent said they would no longer watch baseball. 48 percent said they would begrudgingly watch baseball. But get this: 38 percent say they would celebrate the change. See what I mean?
The blanket statement that "NL fans don't want the DH" is not always true. Some, sure. But maybe not as many as you might think. I truly do enjoy the debate. It's been fun to kick around on a cold January week with not much else to discuss. So, thanks to everyone who participated.
Follow-up: On the Great DH Debate, the part I don’t understand is the assertion that the players' union prefers it because more money will be spent on player salaries with the DH. Why?
BENFRED: The argument is not that it leads to bigger payrolls. The argument is that it gives the type of players who are being pushed out of the game -- and pushed toward smaller contracts if they can remain in the game -- more chances to stick around. If that would come at anyone's expense, it probably comes at the expense of young pitching, but let's not pretend the union does not value older more established players more than young ones. If it cared about all ages/experiences of players equally, it would stand up for minor leaguers who make hardly nothing compared to their major league peers.
Players don't bark when a no-name, young player gets processed. They fume when established names are put to pasture before they decide to call it quits.
NFL GONE ... AND FORGOTTEN
QUESTION: It's been three years since the NFL left this city. Do you feel more confident, less confident, or no different about the possibility of the league returning?
BENFRED: No different, really. I'm sure at some point the league will start to use STL as one of its prized stalking horses, the market it uses to attempt to leverage other teams. There has already been some of that, when that report came out about the Raiders maybe spending a season here while they transition to Vegas.
I can't imagine area leaders rallying around an NFL push, and I think the citizens would be lukewarm about it enough to not have a ton of momentum. Maybe I'm misreading the room? Let me know if that's the case.
MIZZOU'S LAGGING ATTENDANCE
QUESTION: What’s it going to take for Mizzou fans to get to the arena for men's basketball games? I know winning helps, but the attendance looks bad on TV.
BENFRED: I applaud the student section for showing up for the Tennessee game. Classes were not in session, and they were there early and loud throughout, even after the game turned on its head. Agree that the empty seats don't look good on screen. Just not sure the average Mizzou fan is going to show up to weeknight games to watch an NIT-ish team. And that's a shame, but it's kind of the way things are moving across the country.
It's not just a Mizzou problem, though it does stand out at Mizzou. The Tigers ranked very high in attendance last season. The hope was the MPJ bump would linger. We'll see where they finish this year. When Central Florida comes to town, and their employees are remarking about the lack of an atmosphere at an SEC road game, that's not great.
ODOM'S DWINDLING STAFF
QUESTION: Any rumors on a new LB coach for Mizzou ?
BENFRED: Only rumors I have heard are about the departure of the one who just left. Might be a little awkward at the next Odom family get-together. Tigers thought they had kept Brian Odom. Turns out they had not. The narrative about Odom having a hard time keeping his staff together gains some merit when his brother departs. And yes, I know it was to Oklahoma, a good job at his alma mater. Isn't blood supposed to be thicker than crimson red?