The Cardinals reached the 2019 NLCS on the strength of their pitching and defense, as the team’s offensive efforts could best be described as middle of the pack. After letting Marcell Ozuna leave in free agency and trading Jose Martinez to the Rays, St. Louis did more to subtract than add from the lineup during the offseason, as Brad Miller and the re-signed Matt Wieters were the only position players inked to Major League contracts.
Young players like Tommy Edman, Harrison Bader, Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, and (eventually) top prospect Dylan Carlson are expected to make up some of this offensive slack as they grow into being big league regulars. If and when the 2020 season gets underway, however, the Cards are also counting on several underachieving veteran bats — i.e. Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina — to get back to form.
At the very least, Paul Goldschmidt performed markedly better than that group. The six-time All Star’s first season in St. Louis saw him hit .260/.346/.476 with 34 homers over 682 plate appearances. This worked out to a 113 OPS+ and 116 wRC+, both of which ranked second on the team (behind Edman) among Cards batters with at least 349 PA. Goldschmidt also came up big in the Cardinals’ five-game triumph over the Braves in the NLDS, posting a 1.383 OPS over 23 plate appearances to help lead St. Louis to its first postseason series victory since 2014.
All in all, it was a very solid showing for a veteran hitter in his age-31 season. However, “very solid” is not what the Cardinals were expecting from Goldschmidt, especially given their major investment in his future during the 2018-19 offseason.
The Cards paid a hefty price to acquire Goldschmidt from the Diamondbacks in December 2018, sending Luke Weaver, Carson Kelly, minor league infielder Andy Young, and a Competitive Balance Round B pick in the 2020 draft (that 75th overall pick was used on Dominic Fletcher, a strong defensive outfielder ranked by MLB Pipeline as the 20th-best prospect in Arizona’s farm system). It was a lot to give up for just one year of Goldschmidt’s services, though the Cardinals kept the slugger away from free agency by signing him to a five-year, $130MM extension last spring, locking Goldschmidt up for the 2020-24 seasons.
It was the priciest contract in Cardinals history, topping the seven-year, $120MM deal given to Matt Holliday in the 2009-10 offseason. The Holliday contract, incidentally, is widely considered to be one of the best nine-figure free agent deals in baseball history — entering his age-30 season at the time of the agreement, Holliday remained a very productive player until almost the very end of the seven-year pact, as injuries began to take their toll. He was limited to 703 PA over the last two seasons (2015-16) of his Cardinals contract, though Holliday still managed a 113 OPS+ and 115 wRC+ during that stretch.
Some might call this a “very solid showing” for an injury-plagued Holliday in his age 35-36 seasons….especially considering that it essentially matched what the 31-year-old Goldschmidt did over only slightly fewer plate appearances in 2019.
Granted, that observation is probably better served to illustrate that Holliday was a very underrated player moreso than it was to hint that Goldschmidt is already in a decline phase. Still, considering how sharply Goldschmidt’s 2019 numbers dropped off from his superstar-level production in Arizona, the Cardinals can’t be happy about already having to consider if he has already peaked.
From 2013-18, Goldschmidt batted .301/.406/.541 over 3944 PA for the Diamondbacks, hitting 181 homers and posting a 149 wRC+/150 OPS+. His 2019 campaign, therefore, marked easily the worst season of seven-year span, and Goldschmidt also posted the lowest batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, walk rate (11.4%), and BABIP (.302) of those seven years in 2019, while generating his second-highest strikeout rate (24.3%).
As per Statcast numbers that date back to 2015, Goldschmidt also posted his lowest hard-hit ball rate (42.4%), exit velocity (90.1 mph) and xwOBA (.361) of the Statcast era. His xwOBA is higher than his .346 wOBA, however, and since Goldschmidt had never previously enjoyed less than a .340 BABIP in any of his full Major League seasons, there is some element of bad luck to his 2019 results. As MLBTR’s Connor Byrne pointed out last July, however, Goldschmidt’s sprint speed has been in decline as he has gotten older, which has been borne out in his dwindling stolen base totals and, by extension, his ability to beat out grounders and keep up those inflated BABIP numbers.
Connor’s piece (titled “The Surprisingly Disappointing Paul Goldschmidt”) was published on July 2….which, in classic reverse-jinx form, ended up being just about the nadir of Goldschmidt’s season. After posting a .742 OPS from Opening Day through July 2, Goldschmidt proceeded to hit .274/.354/.554 over his final 326 PA. It marked the second straight year that Goldschmidt rebounded from tough beginning to a season, as he had only a .721 OPS through his first 243 plate appearances of the 2018 campaign before crushing it to the tune of a whopping 1.040 OPS over his 447 remaining PA.
It’s possible St. Louis could look at those 2018 numbers and think that Goldschmidt might just be evolving into a slow-start type of player. And again, it should be noted that Goldschmidt in no way was a bad player in 2019, with a 2.9 fWAR. The issue is that the Cardinals were certainly counting on Goldschmidt’s prime to last at least a couple of years into his extension, not see it potentially already end before his extension even begins.
As a what-if, let’s imagine Goldschmidt hadn’t inked that new deal with the Cards and instead tested free agency. On the heels of his 2019 performance and going into his age-32 season, he wouldn’t have come anywhere close to five years and $130MM on the open market. Jose Abreu was the only other major name in the first base market, and the unusual nature of Abreu’s relationship with the White Sox makes him something of an outlier rather than as a Goldschmidt comp. Abreu openly wanted to remain in Chicago, to the point that he accepted the team’s one-year, $17.8MM qualifying offer and then signed a further extension through the 2022 season (an extra two years and $32.2MM).
Abreu is a year older than Goldschmidt and doesn’t have such a long track record of elite performance. Yet, considering how many felt the White Sox were generous in their extension with Abreu, could something in the neighborhood of a three-year guarantee for $50MM-$60MM have been Goldschmidt’s ceiling in free agency? Teams are less willing than ever to pay a premium for anything below top-level offense from a first base-only player, and it’s likely multiple clubs would have been worried by Goldschmidt’s 2019.
Plus, a qualifying offer would have also been attached to Goldschmidt’s services, and it’s not out of the question that he could have himself accepted the $17.8MM QO as a form of a pillow contract. On the other hand, he also might have been wary about leaving any further potential long-term money on the table since his early-career extension with the Diamondbacks ended up being a bargain for the club. Goldschmidt and his representatives might have looked for a multi-year deal that, ideally, contained an opt-out after the first year, allowing Goldschmidt to re-enter the market if he did indeed prove that 2019 was an aberration.
In any case, the qualifying offer could have potentially helped the Cardinals in re-signing Goldschmidt at a much lower price than $130MM. Or, while walking away from Goldschmidt entirely would have been bold given how much they sent to the D’Backs, the Cards could have looked elsewhere and, in this scenario, had $130MM in future funds to allocate to another offensive player. Perhaps St. Louis could have made a big push for Anthony Rendon, or maybe outbid the Twins for Josh Donaldson (a longtime Cardinals target).
It’s all total speculation, of course, as Goldschmidt is on the Cards’ books through the 2024 season. Of all the veterans St. Louis is relying on once baseball eventually gets underway, the length and cost of Goldschmidt’s contract make him the player the Cardinals most strongly hope can get back on track.