- One of baseball's most competitive divisions just got a bit closer. The Cardinals added a badly-needed middle-of-the-order slugger in Paul Goldschmidt, but is it enough to vault them into company with the Cubs and Brewers?
The 2018 NL Central was a tangled draw, baseball’s only division to finish with four different teams above .500. (Sorry, Reds.) The Cardinals’ deal for Paul Goldschmidt only makes sure that it’ll stay a toss-up—the division now has even more talent, and still has no strong favorite.
There has to be a favorite, of course, for the sake of Las Vegas and projection analysis. As you’d probably expect, it’s still the Cubs. That only makes sense, with a significant portion of talent still intact from the 2016 World Series. But they entered last year as a favorite, too—only to be hampered by a slow start and squeezed by a midsummer spark from the Pirates, an intense late run from the Cardinals, and a season-long assault from the Brewers. After two consecutive division titles, Chicago couldn’t nab a third, coming up short in a tiebreaker game to Milwaukee. The Cubs’ 2018 margin for error wasn’t as big as it may have initially seemed. It’s now even smaller in 2019. Milwaukee’s still right there, and there's a potentially far more serious threat in St. Louis.
The Cardinals didn’t have to give up too much to make this happen. To acquire one of the most consistent quality hitters in the game, they sent off a group of young talent who didn’t stand to make much of an immediate impact. Catcher Carson Kelly would have been stuck behind Yadier Molina for two more years. Pitcher Luke Weaver hadn’t quite been able to live up to the hype as a former first-round draft pick. Infielder Andy Young is a depth piece far out on the fringes of the organization’s prospect rankings. In other words, St. Louis may have given up players with experience in the major leagues, but it didn’t give up players who were expected to offer any meaningful major league experience in 2019. And in return, it gained a player who can offer plenty of just that.
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Yes, Goldschmidt has just one year before free agency. But there are few players who can be relied on for more value in a single year. Goldschmidt matches remarkable talent with remarkable consistency. With seven full seasons in the major leagues, Goldschmidt has six in which he’s appeared in 145 games or more. (He has five in which he’s appeared in 155 or more.) And in every one of those seasons, the first baseman has been decidedly good. At his best, he’s been outstanding with a 1.005 OPS and 6.8 Baseball-Reference WAR (2015); at his worst, he’s been… still entirely solid, .850 OPS and 3.4 WAR (2012). He’s a six-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger, three-time Gold Glove, two-time runner-up for MVP. Sure, there’s inherent risk in any rental deal. But acquiring one year of Goldschmidt is acquiring one year of a player who’s never had a bad year.
The Cardinals have picked up a potentially transformative talent for 2019. In a division that seems likely to be separated by just a handful of games, a player who’s perennially worth four or five wins can make the difference—and then some. That doesn’t even touch the value added to the team in flexibility; Matt Carpenter can now move to third base, and Jose Martinez can likely be used as a trade chip. Just by acquiring Goldschmidt, then, there should be enough here to stir anxiety in the Cubs and Brewers. But St. Louis likely isn’t done yet. The club still has a few other needs (relief pitching, most notably), and it’s reported to have “significant financial flexibility” in pursuing those, according to Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com. Even if it decides to pay up for an elite bullpen arm—Craig Kimbrel, say, or Adam Ottavino—it still wouldn’t be quite enough to definitively launch St. Louis over Chicago and Milwaukee to become the singular favorite. The division is simply too close for that. But it would certainly be enough to shade that way, and the fact that it’s a possibility should be enough to prompt some action from the rest of the division.
And as for what the other side of this deal means for its division race? The Dodgers should have had a clear path to the front of the NL West in 2018. If they don’t make sure that they have one now, with the biggest star gone from the Diamondbacks, they’ll only have themselves to blame.