Paul Goldschmidt Gives Cardinals Badly-Needed Boost in NL Central Race

The arms race in the NL Central is on. The Cardinals add a middle-of-the-order slugger as they try to keep up with the Cubs and Brewers.
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On June 3, after his 57th game of the 2018 season, Paul Goldschmidt’s batting line stood at .208/.325/.396. All season, he had looked helpless at the plate, particularly against hard fastballs. He had homered just eight times all year; he was on pace to strike out 200 times. Had Arizona’s 30-year-old righty slugger, who had been so dependably great for five straight seasons, begun his decline? Not exactly. Over his next 38 games, Goldschmidt homered 13 times, bringing his season back to typical Paul Goldschmidt territory, where it remained the rest of the way. He finished with 33 homers and a .922 OPS, which ranked fourth in the National League.

His recovery wasn’t enough for the 2018 Diamondbacks, who scored 119 fewer runs than they did in 2017 and finished 82-80. But it was enough for the franchise’s long-term plans: Goldschmidt, with one year at a bargain $14.5 million left on the extension he signed in 2013, would prove to be a valuable asset on the trade market if Arizona decided to shed him come winter. On Wednesday, Arizona indeed parted with its six-time All-Star, the second-best player (to Randy Johnson) in the history of the franchise, sending him to St. Louis for a package that included catcher Carson Kelly, pitcher Luke Weaver, infielder Andy Young, and a 2019 draft pick. 

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At the risk of being too blunt: the move makes the 2019 Cardinals a lot better and the 2019 Diamondbacks a lot worse. Over the last six seasons, among position players, only Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson have produced more wins above replacement than Goldschmidt has. St. Louis is boldly signaling its interest in contending next year; Arizona is signaling its interest in chasing the Padres for the 2021 NL West crown.

Between Matt Carpenter and José Martínez, the Cardinals actually got fine production out of their first basemen in 2018—a .271/.356/.503 line, good for fifth-best in the NL by OPS. (Carpenter split his time between first and third; Martinez between first and right.) But elsewhere on the diamond, St. Louis needed help. Dexter Fowler OPSed .576; Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, and Jedd Gyorko all took steps back.

Acquiring Goldschmidt not only gives the Cardinals the best first baseman in the game, it gives them more flexibility with their existing players. Carpenter will slide over to third—on Twitter he called the move a “#ChristmasMiracle”—while Gyorko can either platoon with Wong at second or be traded. Martínez, too, remains a trade candidate, though he could also stick in right, possibly as a platoon player, if Fowler rebounds enough to handle regular duty. (Martínez is best suited in the AL as a DH, owing to his extreme struggles on defense and, naturally, his outstanding bat.)

Crucially, the Cards landed Goldschmidt without losing anyone they were counting on for 2019. Kelly, who was ranked the No. 46 overall prospect by before last season, figured to be a possible heir to Yadier Molina. But Molina’s age-35 season looked more than enough like the ones that came before it—a .750 OPS, 120 starts behind the plate—to trust him to carry the load in 2019. As for Weaver, whom the Cards picked No. 27 overall in 2014, it’s hard to know whether he can hold down a rotation spot on a playoff contender. He finished last year in the bullpen, thanks to the 4.66 ERA he posted as a starter, and he had been surpassed by fellow 2014 first-rounder Jack Flaherty and fourth-round lefty Austin Gomber. Young, meanwhile, spent his 2018 split between High-A and Double-A; St. Louis was unlikely to call on him as more than a bench part next year. 

If the Cardinals can manage to sign Goldschmidt long-term, the prospect price they paid will seem trivial. And if they can’t, and the team struggles, well, they’ll presumably be able to replace Weaver, Kelly, and Young by trading Goldschmidt this summer. Right now, it’s hard not to think of St. Louis as having every bit as viable a shot at the NL Central title as the Cubs and Brewers do. This was a good day in Bird Land.