BENFRED: He continues to be the hottest topic in town. As he should be. Transcendent talent. Would be perfect fit here in St. Louis. If he’s determined to be traded, and the Rockies see his desire to leave as a problem that must be made the best out of now, the Cardinals should do everything in their power to make it happen. The opt-out after the 2021 season is still the big hurdle, not the no-trade clause, which those who know Arenado better than I do believe he would waive to play for the Cards.
I’ve said from the jump I have a hard time seeing the Cards ultimately willing to make this deal happen, based on what the Rockies would ask for via trade to better sell the move to their fans; based on the Cardinals' commitment both financially and verbally to Matt Carpenter; based on DeWitt’s statement that he doesn’t see a significant payroll increase; based on Colorado's hope that it can still win with Arenado in 2020.
Lots of talking. Lots of hurdles. I'll believe it when I see it.
QUESTION: Some of the reports about the Cardinals’ conversations with the Rockies regarding Arenado mention Dakota Hudson as a potential piece in a trade package. Who would replace him in the rotation if he was moved? Ryan Helsley? Genesis Cabrera? Austin Gomber?
BENFRED: Hudson would make a lot of sense for the Rockies. Groundball pitcher in thin air. Doesn't give up many home runs. His walks might scare Colorado though. Those tend to get compounded at altitude.
But Hudson is super talented and super cost-controlled. Not arbitration eligible until 2022. Not a free agent until 2025.
If Hudson were shipped out, that would mean Carlos Martinez and new addition Kwang Hyun Kim had spots to lose instead of competing for one between the two. You named the other options. I’d add Jake Woodford to your list.
QUESTION: Don’t get me wrong, the Nolan Arenado trade chatter is fun. But why didn’t the Cardinals just sign Anthony Rendon? Or at least try?
BENFRED: I raised this question in a recent column about Arenado. Why would a team that felt compelled to go get the best third baseman in baseball — in my opinion, that’s Arenado — not show a shred of any interest in other third basemen in case they were not successful in their pursuit? If you are seriously hunting Arenado, you think your third-base situation needs help now.
But the Cards didn’t get involved with Rendon, didn’t get involved with Donaldson, didn’t get involved with Moustakas.
I have no doubt the Cardinals like the idea of Arenado more than any of these other names, but I also have some doubts that a team not desperate to add A third baseman is going to add THE third baseman.
QUESTION: Is the Cardinals’ payroll cemented or in flux? The answer seems to change depending on the day.
BENFRED: Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said he does not see payroll increasing much, if at all. Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said payroll is always up for fluctuations based on the opportunity available.
One of those two decides if payroll changes significantly.
He can change his answer. He’s the boss. But he would need to be convinced the increase is worth it.
QUESTION: Do you think the Astros got off easy for their electronic sign-stealing? Some do.
BENFRED: Count me as one of those who thought the punishment was pretty severe. Those whining about the players not getting punished are conveniently forgetting the players’ union exists, and that many of the players who could have engaged in the cheating — good luck finding out for sure who did and who did not — have moved on to different teams. Try punishing player X from the Astros 2017 team when he’s playing for Team Y in 2020. Is that fair to that new team?
It’s also worth remembering the commissioner works for the owners, and owners tend to protect owners — even when one has ticked off the others. It’s important to keep in mind what is realistic, considering the powers that be here.
I liked that the punishment started at the top of the baseball operations side, with Jeff Luhnow, because respect for the rules trickles down. Manfred knew the year suspensions would lead to the firing of manager AJ Hinch and Luhnow. You can’t go a season with a suspended manager and general manager.
I guess Manfred could have taken more draft picks. I don’t like the idea of limiting international spending, though. How does decreasing money available for foreign players desperate for a shot at the majors help anyone? The $5 million fine is the biggest baseball allows. Should it be more? Sure. But Manfred had to work within the rules.
Whether the championship is vacated or not doesn’t matter. It’s forever tainted. Baseball isn’t college basketball. Tainted titles are not shrugged off. The asterisk stands forever, a byproduct of a history-obsessed and romanticized sport.
QUESTION: Jeff Albert was on the Astros staff in 2018. He had to have known about (and been involved in) the cheating, right?
BENFRED: We can only go off the facts we have. Jeff Albert was interviewed by MLB during the investigation of the Astros. He cooperated. He was not punished for any wrongdoing, which matches the explanation he gave the Cards when the story came out.
Albert is on the clock to get a better offensive performance from Cardinals hitters in 2020. Period. Full stop.
But it’s unfair to connect him to the sign stealing scandal when the report didn’t confirm that. Most of Albert’s work was with Houston minor leaguers, and the bulk of the sign stealing happened in 2017, before he joined the major league team.
Did he know about it? He will be asked that eventually. Whether he answers, we will see. I imagine most who have a tie to this are going to claim they are under MLB gag order. Convenient.
QUESTION: Do you think the Cardinals’ front office feels better about the level of punishment for breaking into the Houston computer system? Seems the front office could have lost a few executives for failing to detect the criminal acts by former scouting director Chris Correa (above).
BENFRED: Perhaps. But these are quite different cases. Manfred does seem to be more interested in rooting out on-field, in-field game wrongdoing than the off-field variety. That’s not surprising. One is right in front of baseball’s face, being investigated real time by Twitter. Logging into someone else’s account is a lot easier to hide — and for the crowd to move on from — than banging a trash can in a dugout hallway on games in which the broadcast was picking up the sounds. (Ironically, the one that became a federal crime might mean less bad PR for the league.)
Anyway, MLB's investigation of Houston proved Hinch knew. MLB's investigation of Cards didn’t prove anyone other than Correa knew. That might have turned out differently if Correa cooperated with investigators, but he didn’t, and took a lifetime ban because of it. As for Luhnow’s suspension, it’s worth remembering he was also admonished for cultivating a toxic culture in the Astros baseball ops department. The Brandon Taubman stuff was mentioned in the investigation, for example.
Another thing: The Cards punishment was the first of its kind for baseball hacking. The Astros continued their cheating after the Red Sox Apple Watch scandal. A precedent had been set by Manfred. That’s why Red Sox and Cora will be hit harder than the Astros. Repeat offenders. (Cora was fired hours after this answer.)
QUESTION: All of this talk about Nolan Arenado and Marcell Ozuna. When is someone going to look up and realize the Cardinals don’t have a closer?
BENFRED: They've got plenty of guys who could grab that role: One is Carlos Martinez. Ryan Helsley. Giovanny Gallegos. Genesis Cabrera. Andrew Miller. John Brebbia.
The Cardinals have been burned time and time again by "proven" relievers on the free-agent market. They tend to be better off finding them from within, or dusting one off after pulling it out of the bargain bin, like Bud Norris.
Spending dollars and prospects on "proven" relievers is going to be a declining trend, I think. Especially with the Cardinals, who can't figure out how to do it right.
QUESTION: Jack Flaherty has not been shy about reminding people he is underpaid. If he wants to get max money down the line, the Cardinals could have a hard time keeping him. Would the Cardinals consider including Flaherty in an trade package for Arenado if they feared they won’t be able to sign Flaherty long-term?
BENFRED: I'm not sure what you mean about Jack not being shy about being underpaid. I think it’s everyone else that has made that point.
Even when Jack was renewed by the Cards to better protect his leverage when arbitration arrives, he didn’t complain. He said he didn’t agree with the system but that it wasn’t specific to the Cards, and he was right.
He is underpaid. We know it. He knows it. He’s going to make up for it no matter which team pays him, if he performs like this or better moving forward.
Flaherty isn’t going anywhere any time soon. The Cardinals would be crazy to trade him.
QUESTION: What can you share about Mario McKinney’s suspension and transfer from Mizzou?
BENFRED: There's a lot of chatter that I'm not going to put out there without confirmation that it's true.
McKinney (above left) is going to get his chance to tell his side of it. So will Martin and Mizzou. Some clarity, on the record, would be appreciated.
There has been talk going back a while that he was disgruntled and considering leaving. He made a Facebook post after his suspension was announced that complained about Mizzou having so many guards. Paraphrasing here, but he said he felt misled about the roster construction.
How any player with access to the Internet is surprised by the roster he signs up to join is beyond me.
Martin is playing so many guys this season, it's hard to believe McKinney didn't have a fair shake to get minutes if he was doing the right things in practice. He didn't seem all that interested in defense in his limited playing time, and he looked for his shot as soon as he entered off the bench. That's not a great way to carve out a bigger role.
I wish him the best but would have liked to see him tough it out a little longer. Things often get better if a guy can overcome the first urge to leave.
QUESTION: Just how big is this Dayton game for Travis Ford’s Billikens?
BENFRED: Friday night has a real chance to be the most-packed game at Chaifetz in recent memory, and it should be. The Seton Hall game earlier this season felt like it had a chance to be the kind of game -- with a win -- that energizes an entire city. Problem was, the Billikens no-showed it.
But now they've clawed back. They're 14-3. They're back on the cusp. A win against Dayton, now ranked 13th, would be a huge boost for NCAA tournament chances. Seton Hall was also ranked 12th. Do-over.
I don't know if SLU will win but I do think it will be much more competitive. I hope the 6 p.m. start doesn't affect the crowd. Get there early. SLU plays three games against Dayton (two) and VCU (one). Two (one against Dayton and one against VCU) are at home. Win those and the Billikens would be in good shape for the NCAA Tournament — if they don’t blow a tire somewhere else.
QUESTION: There were some rather costly targeting penalties during this year’s College Football Playoff. Do you think players should be ejected for that penalty?
BENFRED: It’s so hard to determine intent, but I wish there were two categories and someone assigned to try to differentiate between the two. The difference between a hit with ill intent and a targeting hit that was accidental, should be clear to a neutral party.
I get that the penalty is ratcheted up to encourage reform, but punishing that hit by Clemson linebacker James Skalski during the national championship didn’t sit right with me. He wasn’t aiming to hurt anybody there. I don’t like an ejection for that hit.
The game has changed. My high school football team used to hand out Slobber Knocker shirts for the biggest hits of the game. That hit by Skalski would have earned a prize back then, not a penalty. This is hard to square for football fans like me, and I know I’m not alone.