Is the Harper Flame Smothered?

Ken Rosenthal, writing at The Athletic (subscription required, but here’s the link) just posted a column that leads off with thoughts about the Cardinals’ pursuit of Bryce Harper.  For those of us that are actively excited about the chance of Harper wearing the birds on the bat, this is a bit of cold water thrown on that fire.  Whether it is enough to douse it remains to be seen.

For those that can’t read it, the key section from Rosenthal (though there’s much more than just this):

Their fans are clamoring for such a move. Some in the media are as well. But the Cardinals, according to major-league sources, are not as interested in Harper as those on the outside want them to be. At least not at the moment.

The standard caveats apply — clubs frequently mask their intentions in the offseason, and shifting markets often change a team’s plans. The Cardinals, though, currently are more focused on a corner infielder than an outfielder, and also want to bolster their left-handed relief, sources said.

Rosenthal goes on to indicate that the Cardinals are looking at Paul Goldschmidt as their key change in the infield and presents the idea that Goldschmidt and a reliever such as Andrew Miller or Zach Britton would be more in line of how the Cards want to get better this offseason.

Let’s be clear, that probably would make the Cardinals better for 2019.  Goldschmidt is a quality bat in line with what the Cardinals thought they were getting from Marcell Ozuna last season.  He’s a pretty solid 30-35 home run hitter and usually puts up 5-6 WAR a year.  That’s better than what the Cards have right now, for sure.  That might be the piece in the lineup that St. Louis really needs.  So I’m not saying that the Cardinals would be wrong to do this.

I’m just saying that it’s ridiculously unimaginative and it doesn’t solve some of the problems that the club has said they want to address.

Let’s look at the problems with making this deal.

Goldschmidt is not a left-handed bat.  There’s been such an emphasis on having that left-handed thump in the lineup.  Goldschmidt does hit right-handed pitching fairly well, but his OPS is about 120 points lower against them than against lefties.  Adding Goldschmidt doesn’t do anything to balance out the batting order.  You can argue that shouldn’t be a huge priority, that you get the best hitters you can, and I could go along with that.  But you have a significant left handed bat available in free agency, so it’s not like you can’t address both at the same time.

Goldschmidt costs prospects.  Rosenthal states that the acquisition price “would not be oppressive” since Goldschmidt is a free agent after 2019 (a point we’ll get to in a bit).  That may be so, but it’s not like Arizona is just going to give him away.  Goldschmidt would be valued by a number of clubs and if they are going to use this to fuel a rebuild, they aren’t going to settle for Nick Plummer or anything.  Perhaps it’s in the range of what Ozuna commanded last year (even though he had two years of control left) and while the Cards could stomach that again, they’ve always indicated a preference for keeping talent when they can.  Signing Harper means that they can, especially since they won’t even give up much of a pick to Washington given that they’ve surpassed the tax threshold for two years running.

Goldschmidt will be a free agent.  The Cardinals continue to talk about that core guy, that key person they can rely on.  While there are some thoughts that Goldschmidt would sign an extension or be willing to return to St. Louis after 2019, there’s no guarantee of that.  The end of next season could see Ozuna and Goldschmidt walk.  Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina‘s contracts are up after 2020 and while Carpenter probably will wind up staying, that could mean key parts of this roster wouldn’t be around after the next two seasons.  Is that the direction the Cards really want to go when they could lock up a core guy for a number of years?

Goldschmidt would mean Carpenter would play third.  Matt Carpenter did better at third last year than many of us expected, but that was in part because he didn’t play there much.  Poll Cardinal fans and I think everyone would agree that, for his faults, Carpenter’s best position is first base.  Making him play third increases the risk that any gains made defensively last year would be given back, at least in part.

Goldschmidt isn’t going to inspire the next generation.  Scott Boras was talking about Harper yesterday and referred to franchise value increases and the like.  You get that with a Harper.  You get that excitement that reaches casual fans and young people.  For better or worse, folks even outside of baseball know Bryce Harper.  Goldschmidt is a quality addition that would be appreciated by your base. Harper is the one that lets you go outside that base and increase the curiosity of casual fans.

Goldschmidt is selling yourself low.  From Derrick Goold’s article yesterday:

The 26-year-old outfielder is intrigued by overtures from the Cardinals, multiple sources confirmed, and another source referred to the Cardinals as “in a better position than maybe they realize.”

Goldschmidt, while great, is out of the same mold as the Ozuna trade.  It can help the team, for sure, but can it remake it?  These opportunities don’t come around very often.  You might have to go back to Barry Bonds leaving Pittsburgh to see this kind of impact available.  That seemed to work out pretty well for the Giants, if AT&T Park’s existence is any indication.  I love that the Cardinals are cautious and conservative and always thinking ahead, but part of thinking ahead is planning for the opportunities that present themselves.  If you are always living in the future you can’t ever be in the present.  At some point, you have to play for today while still monitoring the future.

Goldschmidt does nothing to change the “cheap” narrative.  It’s not one I subscribe to, but there’s a chunk of the fanbase that believes that Cardinal ownership never will get the big fish, that they are content with contending and filling the stadium.  Again, I don’t think that’s the case and I don’t think you get 20+ years of success thinking that way, but Goldschmidt is making $14.5 million next season.  That’d make him fourth on the team in salary, maybe fifth depending on how Ozuna’s arbitration process goes.  That’s not exactly a big outlay.

Again, if Paul Goldschmidt is wearing the birds on the bat when Opening Day rolls around, that’s going to be fun and exciting.  It’s also going to feel like the club missed a huge opportunity, given the folks that are indicating they aren’t in on Harper.  A chance at a player like that may never come around again.  It would be terrible if the club was short-sighted enough to miss out.  Hopefully a lot of this is positioning and smoke screens and people talking that don’t know and we’ll all look foolish for falling for the bait.  That’s my hope, at least!

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