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Going For the Gold(schmidt)

The Cardinals are seemingly pretty deep in talks with Arizona to acquire Paul Goldschmidt. Let’s look at some of the implications here.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Texas Rangers Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It would appear, ladies and gentlemen, that we may be hearing some news on the trade front in the relatively near future. Now, I’m basing that on Twitter scuttlebutt and a little bit of non-public chatter I have access to, so huge grains of salt are probably in order here, but there’s a lot of smoke here, and I’m thinking there may be some fire.

So anyway, in case you haven’t heard, the rumblings from the West are in regards to Paul Goldschmidt, and the Cardinals potentially pulling off a trade for the Diamondbacks’ big first baseman. Up until now, most of the analysis done has been about the cost of such a deal, or whether the club should try to expand it to include Zack Greinke, or other things like that. Well, if this thing is really a strong possibility to happen before the Winter Meetings even begin, then it’s probably time to put down some thoughts on the player himself. I have several, so let’s work through them.

First off, let me say that I think a Paul Goldschmidt trade is a substantially worse solution for the Cardinals this offseason than a Bryce Harper signing, for a couple key reasons. One, you’re spending talent to get him plus money to try and extend him, rather than just money to sign a player, and to my mind it’s nearly always better to spend money only and hang on to the talent. Two, Goldschmidt being a right-handed hitter is much less helpful for a club already fighting left/right balance in the lineup. Now, the handedness thing isn’t a huge deal, and the quality of the player should always be the first consideration, i.e. give me a right-handed stick with a 130 wRC+ over a lefty with a 110 every day of the week, lineup balance be damned. However, in the case of Harper v. Goldschmidt, you’re talking about fairly comparable bats. Goldschmidt’s career wRC+ is 144; Harper’s is 140. When the players are similar, give me the guy who helps you balance out the lineup.

More important than the handedness question, though, is the age issue. As good as Paul Goldschmidt is, he’ll play the 2019 season at 31, compared to Harper’s 26. Those five years represent an enormous difference. Goldschmidt’s career wRC+ is higher than Harper’s, and yet Bryce Harper projects for a 147 wRC+ in 2019, compared to Goldschmidt projected at 135. Why? Because 31 and 26 are very different things.

So given my druthers between the two, I would sign Harper rather than trade for Goldschmidt. There’s also some knock-on effect of Matt Carpenter playing more third base, which isn’t a disaster but I also think is less than optimal, but that’s a bit less of a concern for me. The real issue for me is the fact that you will almost certainly still want Bryce Harper playing for your team in six years; Goldschmidt is a much less certain thing in that arena. But with that in mind, let’s dig in a bit on Goldschmidt the player, and see what the Cardinals might be getting.

Paul Goldschmidt is, without a doubt, one of the most freakishly consistent offensive producers in the game over the past half-decade or so. Since 2013, he has only failed to break the five WAR barrier once, and has never fallen below four. His lowest wRC+ over that period was 133 in 2016; every other season he’s been above 140. He has posted a .240 or higher isolated slugging mark every season except that 2016 campaign. His walk rate has never dropped below 13%. He’s hit over 30 homers in four of the six seasons, has never hit fewer than nineteen in any year, even going all the way back to his first full season, and has posted an OBP of at least .389 every year since 2013. If you look up ‘big bat’ in the encyclopedia, Paul Goldschmidt’s picture is the example.

All of that, however, is past production. And paying for past production is exactly the sort of thing teams try so very hard not to do these days, and what has changed so much that free agency is no longer the guaranteed windfall it seemed to be even just a handful of years ago.

However, there are also a few things on Goldschmidt’s side of the ledger that suggest he may age better than some other players. He has been a fantastic defender at first base in his career, accumulating 50 defensive runs saved over the course of his time in Arizona, and he still posted a +6 DRS and +5 plus/minus in 2018. Now, UZR saw him as right at a neutral defender this past season, rather than a plus, so there’s a note of caution, but two of the three systems believing he’s still at near-peak level defensively is very encouraging.

There’s also the matter of the stolen bases. Goldschmidt has stolen 124 bases in his career, topping out at 32 in 2016, and consistently produces positive baserunning value year after year. His sprint speed in 2018 did fall off a bit, coming in at almost exactly league average (league average spring speed is 27 ft/sec; Goldschmidt clocked in at 26.9), after having been slightly above average in the past, but that’s still well above-average speed relative to other first basemen. Of the 32 players who clocked at least 100 runs while playing primarily first base, Goldschmidt placed eighth in average sprint speed, and some of the players above him were guys like Cody Bellinger, Ian Desmond, and Hunter Dozier, all of whom have spent considerable time at other, more premium positions.

The reason I’m focusing on sprint speed and baserunning and defense here is because I think there’s a decent body of evidence to suggest that Paul Goldschmidt is an unusual sort of athlete for a first baseman. That is a point in favour of believing Goldschmidt may age better than most first basemen. If we believe Goldschmidt will have an unusually gradual decline, as did, say, Matt Holliday, then an extension makes much more sense.

For the record, I’m not saying I’m certain Goldschmidt will hold his value better than other players at his position; I’m only saying that if I were to look at the kind of first baseman I might think would age unusually well, it would essentially be a player with Goldschmidt’s athletic profile. I do wonder what teams know or believe about the aging curve based on information or models we don’t have access to; I have a feeling clubs have ideas about how players age, and we’ll see some interesting bets placed in the coming years. Whether Goldschmidt is in that class or not I do not know, but as I said, if someone were to ask me personally, I believe Goldschmidt is very much the kind of player you’d want to bet on to age gracefully.

There’s also the matter of Goldschmidt’s remarkable durability to consider. Since coming up partway through the 2011 season, he has suffered only one major injury, when in 2014 he was struck on the hand by a pitch and missed roughly the final two months of the season with a fracture. Much like Paul DeJong this past season, getting hit in the hand by a pitch is not a chronic injury, unless the player in question is Scott Sterling or something.

Outside of that freak occurrence, Goldschmidt has been a model of durability. He’s played in at least 155 games every year since 2013 outside of that ‘14 season, and even with that included has averaged just under 660 plate appearances per year. So we have a player who is more athletic than typical for his position, appears to still play defense at a high level, is faster than other comparable players, and has zero injury history outside of getting hit in the hand one year. Again, these are basically all the qualities I would personally believe should contribute to a better than average aging curve in a player.

If we look at Goldschmidt’s plate discipline numbers, he looks to have changed very little over the last couple years. He did chase pitches out of the zone in 2018 slightly more often than in the past, posting a 26% o-swing%, compared to 22-24% marks most years, but he also just swung slightly more often overall. His contact rate has held pretty steady, mostly in the 75-77% range year over year.

Let’s head over to Statcast and see what we have there. We find a 13.6% barrel rate, which is top 5% in the league. There is a moderately concerning dip in Goldschmidt’s hard hit rate from 2017 to ‘18, as he dropped from 47.2% hard contact to 43.8%, but that’s also within the realm of fairly average variation.

We also have an interesting uptick in launch angle for Goldschmidt in 2018. In 2015, his average launch angle was 13 degrees. In 2016, that dropped to 11.1’, and rose only slightly to 11.6’ in 2017. For reference, noted groundball machine Marcell Ozuna put up a 10.8’ launch angle this past season, so you’re really not talking about too different a batted-ball profile overall.

However, Goldschmidt’s 2018 is different, in that he increased his launch angle by over four degrees, all the way to 15.7’ for the season. Now, that’s not up with the serious launch angle guys who focus on getting the ball into the air at the exclusion of all else — Matt Carpenter, for instance, posted a 20.4’ average launch angle in his near-MVP level 2018 — but it’s certainly a neighbourhood you would think a player with Goldschmidt’s incredible raw power would benefit from inhabiting.

I will say this, on the negative side: Goldschmidt struck out more often in 2018 than he had previously. From 2013 to ‘17, he hovered mostly in the 21-22% strikeout range, which when combined with his mid-teens walk rates and power made him absolutely elite. In 2018, however, he jumped up to 25.1%, easily the highest rate of his career in any full season, and his walk rate dropped to 13%, his lowest mark since 2012. Up until now we’ve had primarily positive indicators of a player who should age well; here’s one for the scary column. A decline in plate discipline numbers at age 30 absolutely has to be considered a risk factor.

All in all, though, I don’t think there’s much question that Paul Goldschmidt would, in fact, be the kind of transformative bat the Cardinals have been seeking for the last several years now. I have my concerns about an extension for him, but it seems pretty clear from all the buzz at this point that the Cards would not be acquiring him strictly with an eye toward a grand one year solution to go for it while Ozuna and Mikolas and Wacha are all still under contract. The Cardinals appear to view and value Goldschmidt as an offensive centerpiece for the next five years or so, and while I think he is a better bet than probably just about any other first baseman of his age to be exactly that, it’s still a big risk. However, given that I can’t see the prospect cost being that ungodly for one year, actually dealing for him is probably a risk very much worth taking.

I do have a couple other thoughts real quickly, on what a Goldschmidt acquisition would mean for the Cardinals. First off, I have to believe at that point that Jedd Gyorko is likely gone. If Goldschmidt is on the team, Matt Carpenter becomes the full-time first baseman, and there simply isn’t enough playing time to maximise the value Gyorko offers when he’s making $13 million in 2019. With Goldschmidt coming in, I have to believe the Cards would do everything possible to move Jedd and find some infield option capable of playing a few positions who hits from the left side. At that point maybe a Profar trade becomes more likely, or perhaps a guy like Tommy Edman is pushed faster than maybe he should be. It’s a shame the Cards had to make a decision on Greg Garcia before any of this started happening.

Second, I’ve seen on Twitter quite a bit that a Goldschmidt trade is exactly the right way to sell Harper on the Cardinals, and I have to say I just can’t see that happening, at all. If the Cardinals pick up Goldschmidt, that’s their big acquisition for the winter. They aren’t going to add ~$60 million in annual salary commitments to their future payrolls in one offseason, period, no matter how frustrated the club might be with missing the playoffs three years in a row. The Cardinals are simply way too cautious, and value future flexibility way too highly, to tie themselves into two giant contracts like that for the future, I believe. So no, I don’t think you get Goldschmidt and then go throw a dumptruck full of money at Harper to come here as well. Goldschmidt is in place of Harper.

And while, as I said earlier, I prefer Harper to Goldschmidt as an upgrade for a variety of reasons, I also can see why the club might view a corner infield bat as a more important addition to the organisation than an outfielder, even a great one. I’ve got the prospect list arranged pretty much how I’m going to go with it, I believe, and am planning on trying to publish the first part this upcoming Sunday morning if I can get it written. And in doing so, it is very obvious the Cardinals’ greatest strength in prospects is still outfield, at least for now, and they have some potential impact players coming in that arena possibly sooner than later. Now, none of the guys in the system are Bryce Harper level impact players, but if you view Paul Goldschmidt as a foundational offensive piece, then I could see looking at the outfielders the system may be producing and deciding that big first base bat is a better bet than spending $350 million on a player whose position might very well be filled at 80% of the production and 5% of the cost in the very near future.

Finally, I’ve seen a bit of chatter regarding what a Goldschmidt pickup might mean for a potential Marcell Ozuna extension or longer term contract, and I have to say I think Ozuna is gone after 2019 probably regardless of what happens with Goldschmidt, but especially if the club picks up the Arizona first baseman. I get the feeling the Cardinals soured some on Ozuna this past season, between the shoulder thing and his seeming resistance to both treatment and coaching, not to mention just the general feeling of not having gotten the player they were envisioning to anchor the lineup. Not saying the relationship is broken beyond repair or anything, but I don’t see a long-term fit with Ozuna in the cards. Part of that, again, is also the knowledge that the Cards have Tyler O’Neill waiting in the wings, have Dylan Carlson hitting Double A in 2019, may end up having to move Elehuris Montero to the outfield if Goldschmidt is occupying first base long term, and have several other less notable names besides those percolating up in the outfield.

So those are most of my thoughts on Paul Goldschmidt. I do have some others, such as a larger consideration of whether teams internally view the defensive spectrum the same way we do as outside analytically minded fans, or if they compare players more directly to specific populations, or the idea of there being a fair amount of hidden defensive value at first base that we haven’t yet really been able to capture, like a minature version of the gulf in knowledge we had regarding catcher defense a decade ago. But in general, these are most of my thoughts. The ones worth putting down that I have, anyway.

What I don’t have today as part of this very late column (day job; apologies), is any sort of clever summation or wrap for the post. So, I’m just going to be done. Have a nice afternoon, and we’ll see if my magical ability to create moves by posting applies even at three pm.