Cardinals Find Gold(schmidt), But At What Cost?

“Go west, young man” was the cry of a generation that headed to California looking for success in the form of gold.  The Cardinals didn’t go that far west but found Goldy all the same.

Days before the winter meetings in Las Vegas, the Cards struck it rich by acquiring Paul Goldschmidt from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Andy Young, and their competitive market draft pick, the one they won in the lottery of smaller market teams.  (As CardsCards pointed out, it’s the one that Theo Epstein has complained about before, which makes it even more fun that the Cards used it.)  Before we get into the pros and cons of acquiring Goldschmidt–because while there aren’t many, there may be one significant issue–let’s take a moment to talk about what the Cardinals gave up.

I don’t know much about Andy Young but I know that Kyle Reis has raved about him, especially recently in his positional rankings of second basemen.  Young had a great year in Springfield and did well out in the Arizona Fall League (and, given the proximity, you gotta figure Arizona scouts were taking notice).  He had the chance to get a callup next year if injuries happened, assuming a good start to his season in Memphis.  That said, you’d like to think that Kolten Wong is going nowhere and there are other middle infield options and prospects in the system.  As with most of these players, St. Louis dealt from depth and while Young (or Kelly or Weaver) may go on to have great careers in Arizona, there just wasn’t a spot for them with the Cards.

I joked with Kyle Reis yesterday that the typo this weekend that somehow made public Francisco Pena‘s signing with the Cards last year as a current transaction was just someone in the organization getting things prepped for the aftermath of this deal.  We’ve all said that Kelly was going to be stunted sitting behind the iron man that is Yadier Molina this coming season, but he’d done all he could at AAA and, as such, was pretty much resigned to playing maybe once a week at the best.  With Andrew Kninzer closing in on being ready if Molina does actually retire in 2020 and others coming up behind him that could perhaps fit the timeline even better, the best use of Kelly seemed to be in a deal like this.  The hope is that Kelly can go out to Arizona as their starting catcher (and then realize, wow, normal starters actually get days off!) and thrive with the regular playing time, developing into what you would expect the former top catching prospect in baseball to be.

Luke Weaver is a bit of an enigma.  There obviously wasn’t a starting spot for him with the Cardinals and it’s possible that it would have taken multiple injuries for him to be chosen for more than a spot start.  He could have been used in the bullpen, though the results there last year weren’t encouraging.  At one time, Weaver and Alex Reyes were paired up coming through the system, Reyes the overpowering fireballer, Weaver the more in command surgical presence.  The Cards were dreaming about them both being in the rotation but now Weaver never will be and there’s questions about whether Reyes will return to the starting role he left.  However, Weaver is still very young, very talented, and smart enough to make adjustments.  The ballpark may do him no favors, nor the fact he’ll have to visit Coors Field much more often, but the rest of that division has good pitching parks and hopefully he’ll have a strong bounceback.

That’s what the Cards sent.  Now let’s look at the deal from their point of view.

While I still stand by most of the reservations I had about this when the rumor first circulated, there’s no doubt that adding Goldschmidt is a wonderful thing for the Cardinals.  He’s a consistent power hitter, putting up thirty homers three of the last four years.  He hit .290 last year, which was the lowest he’d hit since 2012.  The last four years he’s walked 90 or more times.  The 109 games he played in 2014 are the lowest he’s ever played in a full season by 35 and he’s played in 155 or more games the last four years.

Then you get the defense.  For whatever Gold Gloves are worth to you, he has a few of those in his collection.  He made seven errors last year (Cardinal first basemen–mainly Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez–accounted for 20.)  From all indications, Goldschmidt is also a quality person that everyone seems to enjoy having on their team.  I don’t know that he’s a fiery leader or anything of that sort, but it does sound like blending into the Cardinal clubhouse won’t be too much of an issue for him.  I also was very hesitant to see Carpenter move to third base, but it should be noted that Carpenter played his best defense at third last year and played there a majority of the time.  Pair that with a better receiver at first and while I’m not saying Carp will be in the Gold Glove running, the defense probably does take an overall step up.

Everybody wants to look at lineups and there’s no doubt that the Cardinals can run out a pretty good one for Opening Day:

Carpenter
Dexter Fowler
Goldschmidt
Marcell Ozuna
Paul DeJong
Molina
Wong
Harrison Bader

Now, there are some ifs there.  You have to hope that Ozuna’s shoulder surgery frees him up to be closer to the 2017 version of himself than we saw in St. Louis last year.  You also have to hope that the confidence the front office is showing in Fowler (more on that in a bit) is justified.  If Fowler can bounce back to something approximating even 2017 (which was pretty good, though people tend to forget that), you could have a lot of people on the basepaths or a lot of people circling them.  Pair that up with the pitching that the Cardinals have and they are going to be contenders for the NL Central.

Unsurprisingly, the Cardinals didn’t ask to extend Goldschmidt.  If you were moving to a new job, would you want to sign a long-term deal before you figured out if you really liked the place?  While I get players might want security, they want security in places that they like.  He may come to love St. Louis and the Cardinals might be able to extend him but there was little chance (without just an overwhelming offer that he didn’t think he could match in free agency next season) that he’d agree to that sight unseen.

Of course, it’s a little concerning when the story on the official site includes a line like this:

It’s a sales pitch that has worked in the past, most recently with Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Matt Holliday.

Jim Edmonds was acquired in 2000.  Scott Rolen, 2002.  Matt Holliday was 2009 and even he went to free agency, not signing back with the Cardinals until January.  While the pull of St. Louis probably helped, Holliday easily could have gone somewhere else with the right offer.  In other words, this is a very dated approach that hasn’t actually worked in over a decade.  Granted, they’ve only really had one opportunity in that time span to try it out (that would be Jason Heyward, of course) but it feels to me that the landscape is different.  Now, Goldschmidt has been painted as a guy that isn’t necessarily going to require top dollar to stay in a place he feels comfortable, so maybe St. Louis can sell him on the place, but I’d be really surprised if he doesn’t at least test the market next winter a la Holliday.

Still, even if you have Goldschmidt for just one year, this is a quality deal.  And here’s the thing–right now, without factoring in potential increases in arbitration and escalating contracts, the Cardinals actually have less on the payroll than they did last year.  They’ve cut Adam Wainwright‘s $19.5 million to two, lost Bud Norris ($3 million) and Greg Holland‘s contract ($14 million), and have only brought in Goldschmidt so far, which is $14.5 million (and when you factor out what they’d have been paying Kelly and Weaver, it’s closer to $13.25 or so).  So there’s still plenty of financial flexibility.  In fact, you see that in Jen Langosh’s story linked above:

Because of the limited financial commitment related to the acquisition, this won’t preclude the Cardinals from still making a significant splash in the free-agent market.

And that’s exactly as it should be.  You know that I’m on record for the Cardinals doing the Goldschmidt/Bryce Harper combo!  That sounds….

Their focus now turns to the bullpen and adding a left-handed bat for the bench. Bryce Harper is not a priority target.

Oh.

So the Cardinals can take on salary, but they are just going to be looking for bullpen and bench pieces.  Unless they wildly overpay (and I think Brett Cecil is enough for us not to want to see them commit major dollars to a reliever), neither of those two things should require a “significant splash”.  And, in fact, the Cardinals are apparently talking to Tampa Bay about sending them Jose Martinez for someone that could be that bench bat.  Currently, the Rays only have one player that’s actually signed to a deal according to this site and Kevin Kiermaier is too good of a player overall to be that bench bat (plus his major value is in his glove, which would be wasted not out their regularly.)  If they do such a deal, whomever they get shouldn’t be a big change to the payroll even with Martinez’s low salary.

Why wouldn’t they be in on Harper?

Honestly, given what this front office has been saying, I’m afraid it is because they are intrigued by what Dexter Fowler might be able to give them.  It’s very true that Fowler could use regular time and if he could find his form (and he can’t be as bad as he was last year) he could be a help to this team.  Sliding a good Fowler into the second spot in the lineup makes sense, I’ll grant you.  Maybe their faith would be rewarded.

Maybe.

But when you have a generational talent like Harper available, why are you risking your season on maybes?  Are you really going to pass on the chance to infuse that long-term core with a talent on the rise on the hope that Fowler can provide you some of what you are paying him for over the next three years?  Do you really like his smile that much?

Listen, I’m a fan of Fowler.  I do think he’ll be better next year.  If this was Michael Brantley we were debating about the Cardinals acquiring, I’d be in Fowler’s corner all day long.  However, Harper has a chance to be a Hall of Famer–a very good chance, given how his career has started–and he’s on the upswing.  When was the last time the Cardinals signed a free agent that was at the beginning of his prime, not at the end?

Right now, this is a short term team.  Ozuna, Goldschmidt, Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Michael Wacha all could be gone after next season.  Theoretically Molina will be gone after 2020 and Carpenter could be as well.  (Carpenter’s going to be an interesting case for an extension given age depending on the next two years, but that’s a different topic.)  It looks like it’s an all-in situation for 2019, but what happens if Goldschmidt has an Andres Galarraga season, getting hurt and struggling in his one year in St. Louis?  What if Ozuna doesn’t reach approach those 2017 heights?  If either one of those happens, the Cardinals are a good team, a team that can challenge for the division, but they aren’t necessarily your odds-on favorites.

Even if everyone is healthy, Goldschmidt himself may not move the needle that much.  Chuck Brownson laid it out on Twitter yesterday and I don’t disagree with him.  Goldschmidt is a great hitter, but he’s also not replacing the worst hitter on the team.  Martinez is the one really pushed out by this, but Jedd Gyorko probably loses some playing time as well with Carpenter moving across the diamond.  Martinez was probably the second-best hitter on the team last year (and, given Carpenter’s ebbs and flows, perhaps the most consistent one) and Gyorko provided a good offense when he played.  Goldschmidt definitely is better, don’t get me wrong, but like Chuck said, it still might not make the Cards a 90 win team.  A bounceback from Ozuna and Fowler would help, but even then you are probably talking 90-91.  Which is a playoff caliber team but maybe not enough to win the division and avoid that wild card game.

I’d like to think that the Cards are downplaying their interest and, indeed, they are supposedly still “monitoring the market”.  If the Phillies go wild, so be it, but if they could land Manny Machado, that might drop Harper back into the realm of possibility.  I really hope that they are taking a better view of this than the short-term hope on Fowler.  Harper may not be perfect, but when you have him, Goldschmidt, and Ozuna in a lineup, even if one engine fails the other two will probably be able to carry the team.

Let’s put that aside for a day, though.  The Cardinals made a significant trade, got one of the best players in baseball, and improved their team (even if it wasn’t as dramatically as it appears).  We should be appreciative of that and really enjoy it before moving on to the next complaint, the next target.  There will be time enough for griping or questioning later on after the whole puzzle is put together.  Right now, let’s tip our cap to John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch for an excellent deal that hopefully will strike Gold.

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers9667.589 -
Cubs9568.5831.0
Cardinals8874.5437.5
Pirates8279.50913.0
Reds6795.41428.5

Last updated: 10/01/2018

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