For a while, the Cardinals have wanted a bat. They tried to take Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins last winter, but the slugger said no. Then they pivoted to Stanton’s teammate, Marcell Ozuna, whom they landed in a trade, but the outfielder regressed from a homer-happy 2017, posting a roughly league-average season at the plate in St. Louis. And they were linked to Josh Donaldson in free agency, only for the third baseman to sign with Atlanta instead.
And then, in the span of 15 minutes on Wednesday, rumors about a pending trade for Paul Goldschmidt gave way for the official announcement from Arizona’s team Twitter account: Goldschmidt, one of the best first basemen and overall pure hitters in the majors, is heading to St. Louis, satiating the Cardinals’ long-held desire.
Welcome to Arizona! The #Dbacks have acquired right-handed pitcher Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly, infielder Andrew Young and a 2019 Competitive Balance Round B draft pick from the Cardinals in exchange for Paul Goldschmidt. pic.twitter.com/ylANMvt8kU— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) December 5, 2018
In return, Arizona adds Luke Weaver, a young pitcher with promise; Carson Kelly, a young catcher with promise; and Andy Young, a young infielder with promise; as well as a draft pick that will slot after the second round in June. Goldschmidt is under contract for only one more season, but he makes his new team much better in the present, and the Cardinals didn’t have to sacrifice any player central to their 2019 hopes in exchange.
By any measure, the 31-year-old Goldschmidt is one of the best and most consistent hitters in the sport. Since 2012, his first full season in the majors, his wRC+ has bounced between 133 and 163 every season, meaning he’s never been quite at the top of the leaderboard for the all-encompassing batting stat (which typically sits at 170 or above), but he’s never been far from it, either. Every year, Goldschmidt will hit 30-some homers, drive in 100 runs, and score 100 of his own, and that value adds up — since 2012, he is tied with Robinson Canó with the second-most WAR of any position player, behind only Mike Trout.
Pairing him with Matt Carpenter, who finished ninth in last season’s NL MVP vote, gives the Cardinals a potent lefty-righty combination at the top of the lineup. Goldschmidt’s presence also demotes the likes of Ozuna, Paul DeJong, and Harrison Bader — none of whom boast either the offensive ceiling or consistent track record of Goldschmidt — to more secondary roles, where they can help the lineup during a hot streak but aren’t vital to its overall success. The Cardinals tied for just sixth in the National League — and just third in the NL Central — in team wRC+ last season (not counting pitcher hitting), but they’re a fair bet to do better in 2019 with just this one addition.
Goldschmidt comes with a range of peripheral value, too. He’s visited the disabled list just once in his career — when a broken hand ended his 2014 campaign early — and as such has played in at least 155 games in five of the past six seasons. He also brings defensive value as one of the majors’ best defensive first basemen, and his 124 stolen bases since debuting lead all players at the position by a wide margin. (Wil Myers, who doesn’t play first anymore, ranks second with just 77 steals in that span.)
Few players are as predictable as Goldschmidt, but that’s not a negative in his case; he doesn’t need much in the way of upside because he’s already maximizing his talents. He probably won’t collect bold ink as a league leader in any one category next season, but will rank well across the board.
Paul Goldschmidt! Ummm Yes please! let’s do this!!#ChristmasMiracle #cardinalnation— Matt Carpenter (@MattCarp13) December 5, 2018
Far less predictable is Weaver, one of the two co-headliners of Arizona’s return for the greatest position player in franchise history. The 25-year-old right-hander excelled as a rookie in 2017, striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings and posting similar underlying numbers as Clayton Kershaw and Aaron Nola did that season. But in 136 1/3 innings last year, his strikeouts regressed by a quarter, his ERA flirted with 5 (ultimately ending at 4.95), and he wrapped the season as a mop-up man in the bullpen. In his final two games, he allowed 11 runs (seven earned) across just three innings. It’s too early to give up on his potential, but St. Louis’s rotation is already full of high-caliber arms and might have left Weaver on the outside anyway, had he not been traded.
Kelly, meanwhile, had looked for years like the Cardinals’ heir apparent to Yadier Molina at catcher, and he rated a mid-top-100 prospect before both the 2017 and 2018 seasons. But Molina, now 36, is apparently never going to walk away, and as Kelly struggled to answer questions about his bat (a career .154/.227/.188 line in the majors didn’t help, albeit in just 131 plate appearances), he seemed to be surpassed in the club’s future plans by prospect Andrew Knizner. Kelly profiles as a fantastic defender, and with catchers across the majors unable to hit as a group, a worrisome bat is no reason to think he can’t be a worthwhile starter. Again, though, the Cardinals have their catcher spot filled, and Kelly wasn’t going to help much this season regardless.
Young fits the same mold. A lesser-touted infield prospect with a powerful bat and questionable defense, Young ranked 12th in FanGraphs’ guide to the Cardinals farm system last month. But, FanGraphs cautioned, “the Cardinals big league roster is already full of players without positional flexibility” — so Young didn’t seem to have a place on the team in 2019, either.
The defense is a bit of a concern in St. Louis now, as Goldschmidt’s presence pushes Carpenter back to a more demanding spot in the infield full time and complicates the question of where to play José Martínez, who is more than capable with the bat but much less so with the glove. But it’s Paul Goldschmidt: When a team can add a player of his caliber without surrendering much present value, it should jump at the chance and ask the smaller questions later.
The one large question that remains is Goldschmidt’s future. This season will be his last under the extraordinarily owner-friendly extension he signed with Arizona in March 2013, but the Cardinals will reportedly explore signing him to an extension before it expires. That approach didn’t work with Jason Heyward, for whom St. Louis similarly traded with one season to go before free agency, but a first baseman in his 30s might be more amenable to such an agreement than a 26-year-old outfielder with nearly $200 million on the table.
That St. Louis will be the club making such an offer instead of Arizona is odd; Goldschmidt had spent his entire career with the Diamondbacks, since being drafted in the eighth round out of Texas State in 2009. He hit in rookie ball, and he hit throughout other minor league stops, and he hit immediately upon promotion to the majors, despite never making a top-100 prospect list or even ranking among the Diamondbacks’ top-10 youngsters, according to Baseball America. Goldschmidt should have been a Diamondback for life, wearing those colorful, snake-covered jerseys until Paul Goldschmidt Day at Chase Field in September 2026, when he played his final game and doffed his cap for the final time to the only crowd that ever called him its own.
Instead, Arizona traded Goldschmidt presumably as a prelude to also trading some combination of Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, and other known commodities this winter, as the Diamondbacks give up on next season before it begins. Weaver, Kelly, and Young should be viable contributors at some point, but 2019 is too soon for any of them to make a real, effective impact, and they won’t even have a chance to affect a playoff race this season, anyway, given what is likely to happen to the rest of the Arizona roster before Opening Day.
This sell-off comes after the Diamondbacks made the playoffs two years ago and led the NL West as late as September 1 last season. The three-player return is fine, if light on star potential, but the direction Arizona is going is a shame, even if it’s expected at this point given the death of baseball’s middle class. Also expected: that Goldschmidt will keep hitting, as he always has, and make a whole new fan base fall in love with him. At least one middle-class team is trying to get better, and Goldschmidt’s a sure way to help.