Author’s Note — I began writing this column quite a while back, and was actually in the process of trying to finish it this past Wednesday morning when news of the Cards signing Matt Wieters broke. I pivoted to the actual news of the day, hoping that Bryce Harper would not sign within the next four days, which is of course what then happened. I have decided to leave the portion of the article written prior to the signing as-is, and work from that point on in the present. Thus, there’s a little bit of wonkiness here and there in this piece. Hopefully it still turned out alright. - A.
It’s been a weird offseason.
Not just for the Cardinals, mind you; actually, if anything it’s been way less weird of an offseason for the Redbirds than the vast majority of baseball. There is obviously a lot of frustration swirling around the Cards’ fanbase at the moment, with tons of voices decrying the cheapness of ownership (which is a point I sympathise with, but don’t entirely agree), the smug crookedness of the front office (which I don’t see at all, and feels way more like projection than reality), and the total refusal to move on from sunk costs that are hurting the club (which I 100% am on board with complaining about).
You know, I started writing this column a couple weeks ago, actually, and then decided to put off until after Bryce Harper signed somewhere. It seemed like a fine idea at the time; there had to be some movement relatively soon, I thought, so I would just wait until Harper officially did his little turn on the dais wearing whatever new cap is paying him the most. It makes sense, right? Wait until the principles in the article you’re penning have all actually found homes, at which point you’ll have all the information about what happened, and how, and who, and when, and whatever.
Of course, you see where this is going, right? I was waiting on Bryce Harper to sign, and then he just...didn’t. And then kept right on not signing, and not signing, and. not. signing. We all know that Scott Boras is notorious for dragging his clients’ free agencies out, always trying to wait out the clubs with whom he is negotiating, but this is a bit excessive, it seems to me. Of course, now it seems like it’s almost certainly going to be the Phillies, which is funny, because we thought it was almost certainly going to be the Phillies three months ago too. He’s going to go to Philadelphia, and when the Phillies round the corner, he’s going to say, “I wanted it to be you. So badly.” And maybe you’ll kind of cock your head a little, and squint, and wonder if he’s really telling the truth, because you know, if he really wanted it to be the Phillies, then why did it take all the way to the end of the movie? And if he didn’t, then why is he settling? And yeah, maybe You’ve Got Mail isn’t as technically good a movie as Sleepless in Seattle, or When Harry Met Sally, but I still like it better, and maybe shouldn’t watch it when I’m trying to compose a baseball article, but counterpoint: maybe I should.
Coming into the offseason, I really thought the Cardinals were going to make a run at Harper. I honestly did. And I know that at this point it’s easy for a segment of the fanbase to roll their eyes at that, and scoff, and say of course they weren’t, they were never interested, they’re cheap, and they don’t care, and you’re an idiot for thinking so, Aaron. To which I reply okay, you can think that. But here’s the thing: it’s not as if the Cardinals just refused to make as large an investment this offseason as it would have taken to get Harper. Signing Harper would have required an enormous contract, and giving up a draft pick. Bringing in Paul Goldschmidt cost the club three very useful young players and a draft pick, albeit a worse one. And if they plan on keeping Goldschmidt around, it will still take a huge contract to do so. Maybe not quite the annual value of the Harper deal (edit: or maybe more, considering the weird contract we eventually got with Harper), or almost certainly not the length, but it’s still going to require a huge outlay of financial capital if they plan on keeping him around. And let’s face it: I don’t think you make a deal like the Paul Goldschmidt trade if you aren’t pretty convinced he’s a player you really need to keep around.
So to my eye, it doesn’t look as if the Cardinals simply refused to make a big investment in the future. They just didn’t make the one I expected them to. Acquiring and extending Paul Goldschmidt will, in the end, I think prove just as costly as signing Bryce Harper would have — or will be close in relative terms, anyway — so I don’t think we can accuse the team of not making the effort or investment this offseason. You might argue they should have gone in the other direction — I certainly think Harper was an easier fit and solution for the roster — but I find it hard to square the investment they’ve set themselves up to make with the idea that they just weren’t interested in making a big upgrade.
Which leads us, I think, to one of the more interesting questions of the offseason, the one asked in the title of this post. Why did the Cardinals choose to trade for Paul Goldschmidt instead of sign Bryce Harper? I still am of the belief if Goldschmidt had not been available, the Cardinals probably would have gone hard after Harper, if only because what they acquired this offseason, an offensive centerpiece player, is exactly what Harper would have represented. But at the time they made the trade for Goldschmidt, I immediately marked Harper off my mental checklist, being of the belief they wouldn’t make two such moves in one offseason. I felt like it was very much an either/or situation, and barring some completely shocking development this week, that’s exactly what Goldschmidt/Harper proved to be. So again, why?
What I want to do here is try to run down a few qualities I feel favour one player or the other, and see if we can come to some sort of answer. I’m not sure we’ll answer the question to anyone’s proper satisfaction ultimately, but maybe we’ll get some sense of how the decision was made, and what pushed it one way or the other.
The Question of Consistency
First off, I think it’s worth looking at the respective track records of the two players, and considering what those track records might suggest about each guy. For starters, Goldschmidt has been one of the most consistent offensive performers in baseball since he broke out as a superstar in 2013. That was his age 25 season, and beginning that year he has posted yearly wRC+ totals of 156, 154, 163, 133, 142, and 145. That 2016 season was a slightly odd one, as it was the only season of his career in which he posted an isolated slugging lower than .200, and the only season since 2013 when his ISO was below .240. You want consistency? These are Goldschmidt’s ISO numbers since 2013: .249, .241, .249, .192, .265, .243. For whatever reason, he simply didn’t hit for as much power in 2016, but every other year he’s been almost eerily consistent.
On the other hand, it’s worth looking at Bryce Harper’s career numbers and sort of wondering what the heck is going on. Since 2012, Harper’s first season in the majors, these are his wRC+ numbers: 121, 137, 115, 197(!), 111, 155, 135. Goldschmidt’s numbers year to year vary by less than 20 points of wRC+ with the exception of ‘16, while Harper has gone all the way from just above league average twice to slam dunk MVP in 2015. We see a huge swing in his isolated slugging percentages as well; in 2014 Harper posted an ISO of .151, while in 2015 it was .319. That’s an absurd swing.
Now, it is worth pointing out a couple things. One, Bryce Harper did all of that at a much younger age than Goldschmidt. He was in the majors at an age when Goldschmidt was still a slightly chunky 1B/DH afterthought prospect at Texas State, in fact. And Harper has been more consistent the last couple seasons, with a slightly anomalous 2016 of his own mixed in. It’s not at all hard to imagine that Bryce Harper in his late 20s will be as consistent a performer as Goldschmidt was in those years.
It’s also very much worth noting that the career numbers for both players are quite close. Harper’s career wRC+ is 140; Goldschmidt’s is 144. So in spite of the huge swings Harper has experienced year over year, compared to Goldschmidt’s almost monotonous production, the two players are, relative to league, extraordinarily similar hitters in terms of production. Still, if you are a team that seems to value predictability in what you’re going to get to a very high degree, I think Paul Goldschmidt is a bet here you might very well prefer to place.
I don’t have a clever title here, nor really much of an argument. Bryce Harper is five years younger than Paul Goldschmidt, and that is an enormous thing. It affects what we think of each player going forward, how we project each of them to perform over the life of whatever contract each receives, and what those contracts look like. You have to build a lot of regression into Paul Goldschmidt’s numbers over the next five years or so, while you don’t have to do nearly so much with Harper. This is a huge factor in favour of Harper, and perhaps the single overriding factor I can point to in favour of the argument that the Cards really should have made a different choice in what to pursue this offseason.
The Contractual Question
Here’s where a lot of people are going to play the cheap card, which fittingly enough is that the Cards are cheap. The argument goes that the Cardinals are simply unwilling to make the kind of investment it takes to land a fish the size of Bryce Harper, and so settled for lame old Paul Goldschmidt. Again, though, we’re talking about players who have been roughly equal in terms of production on a rate basis (their WAR totals are very similar as well in terms of PA/WAR), and it isn’t as if Goldschmidt is going to be cheap to extend.
We now know what kind of contract Harper was going to sign (this part was changed today), and it was a huge deal. The biggest ever, in fact. Now, it’s kind of a weird deal, being so nakedly, specifically geared toward just breaking a single number that previously constituted the record that it feels almost childish (seriously, beating Giancarlo Stanton’s number by five million dollars while accepting what is probably a much less lucrative deal than they could have actually gotten going five to seven years feels like a very strange, but also peculiarly Scott Boras-y thing to do), but it’s still a huge contract. Harper will be 38 years when the contract ends, and the kids drafted the last summer of that deal are currently five years old. Just for some perspective. Even so, getting a player like Bryce Harper for roughly $26 million a year has to be counted as a huge win for Philadelphia, at least right now. It feels like there’s an awful lot of downside risk on the end of that contract considering how long the tail will be, but there’s also a crazy amount of surplus value likely built in to the front end of the deal.
On the other hand, we don’t know what kind of contract it will take to extend Paul Goldschmidt. We hear a lot about how humble he is, and how he’s not the sort of player to hold a team over a barrel, but we’ve heard lots of that kind of shit before. Humble or not, I’m sure Paul Goldschmidt wants to be paid like one of the best players in baseball, because he is one of the best players in baseball. The age question really kind of complicates matters here, but if I had to guess I would say right now the Paul Goldschmidt extension/contract will be something like five years, $150 million. Thirty million a year, maybe an option year tacked on the end at $25-30 million. I don’t see an opt out as a likely thing; Goldschmidt negotiating at 32 has better leverage than Goldschmidt at 34, even if he has a couple monster seasons. I don’t expect to see him trying to build in a way back to the market at the expense of maximising the dollar and year value of the contract.
So if I had to guess, I would peg Goldschmidt’s next contract as being a little more expensive per season than the one Harper just signed, and will cover something like his age 32-36 seasons. Throw in an option, and you’ve got 37 in there too. So yes, it will be a far smaller lump of cash, and a much shorter commitment, but if you want to extend Paul Goldschmidt — and again, I don’t think the Cardinals make the deal if they aren’t very serious about keeping him in the fold one way or another — it’s going to cost you something pretty similar, if not more per year, than what it would have cost for Harper. You’ll also be paying the players to essentially the same age at the end. The difference is you get far less upside with the Goldschmidt contract (hypothetically), than you do with Harper, seeing as how you could get Bryce Harper’s age 26-30 seasons before he starts to really decline, whereas you’re getting only decline seasons with Goldschmidt, paying him from 32-37. (Again, hypothetically.)
I have to say, this probably favours Harper as well. The overall contract is much larger, but you could also be paying for the very best years of his career (overall; I don’t think he’ll ever touch 2015 again in terms of a single season), while with Goldschmidt you will likely be paying him at least as much per year for worse years of his career.
Here, though, we come to a different aspect of those respective contracts (and again, I’m going to treat my hypothetical Goldschmidt deal as reality, because I think it’s reasonable and I have to have something to use here as a comparison), which is the fact that the franchise signing Bryce Harper just locked itself in to over a dozen years of paying Harper, come hell, high water, or rebuilding phase, while extending/signing Goldschmidt will likely cover less than half that amount of time.
A lot can happen for a franchise in the space of thirteen years. Now, to be fair, we may not appreciate that as Cardinal fans, because in the space of thirteen years the Cardinals have been really incredible, and then mediocre for a year, and then pretty good, and then they won another championship, and then they were amazing, and then the last couple years they’ve been somewhere around pretty good to good, but have had some bad luck keep them out of the postseason. Thirteen years for the Cardinals contains two titles, exactly one season where everything went wrong and they finished below .500, and an average of 88.15 wins per year. It’s easy to forget how long thirteen years is when your baseball team does basically the exact same thing every year, with only moderate variance in the results.
Consider, though, the Phillies, who just signed Harper. From 2006-’18, while the Cardinals were making the playoffs almost every year and having only one losing season and all that, the Phillies saw quite a bit more volatility. By 2006 they were already a very solid club, with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins anchoring a very potent offense, but hadn’t yet cycled into the behemoth of the Cliff Lee/Roy Halladay years. From ‘06 to last season, the Phillies saw their club win a high of 102 games in a season, and drop to a low of just 63 wins. Nearly a 40 game swing in terms of relative quality, while the Cardinals saw just a swing of 100 wins to 78, only 22. The Phillies won a title during that time, probably should have won another at some point, much like the early 2000s Cards clubs that should have grabbed a trophy one of those years. The Cards had a winning record in twelve of thirteen seasons, while the Phillies had six winning seasons, six losing seasons, and one year at exactly .500.
I’m not trying to compare the franchises in terms of relative success; rather, I’m just trying to illustrate just how much stuff can happen in thirteen years. Thirteen years ago the Phillies were building on a remarkable core, then build a juggernaut, then were terrible, and now have a solid core they just added a huge piece to in order to try and build a juggernaut again, which may or may not happen. Obviously, you hope that something like signing Bryce Harper helps to bring the overall level of your club up, to keep those down periods from happening while he’s under contract, but still, shit happens sometimes. And no matter what happens, no matter what direction the franchise might need to move in, the Phillies are committed to dealing with Bryce Harper for the next thirteen years. That’s really interesting.
What’s also interesting is that the franchise with the least variance year to year is also the one that seems very hesitant to commit to something for over a decade, in spite of the fact they have just spent the last decade and a half being essentially baseball’s model franchise for perennial contention. The Cards don’t seem to want to lock themselves in to something for that long, just in case something goes wrong and they have to pivot.
On the surface, it would seem that makes little sense, as the most stable franchise would also seem to be the one you would expect to want to lock in some form of guaranteed production for a decade plus. But if we think about how much the Cardinals have had to weather over those thirteen years in which they never really dropped out of contention, it perhaps becomes a bit more obvious why they would be trying to keep a pivot more readily available. After all, we’ve seen Allen Craig’s career end suddenly. We saw Oscar Taveras’s life end even more suddenly. The Cardinals have two players around still who were on that 2006 team, but the other 23 roster spots have turned over not just once or twice, but many times. Maybe locking in a Bryce Harper would give the same sort of stability Yadier Molina has brought for over a dozen years, but it’s tough to compare catchers to other players for a variety of reasons. If Harper were to go all Lisfranc in May of this year and never be the same hitter again, how would it affect the Phillies to still have that one plan in place for thirteen years?
I honestly don’t know if I agree with the notion that a contract of the length Harper is seeking is a franchise crippler; in fact, I’m fairly certain I disagree with that idea. However, I can see the point of a franchise who might be hesitant to lock itself in to a single plan, one very expensive spot on the roster, for over a decade. Things happen, and plans change, and pivots have to be made. I can understand how picking up Paul Goldschmidt and trying to have him for six or seven years could offer flexibility far more attractive than the alternative of Bryce Harper for double that time frame.
This one is another relatively straightforward aspect of these players to debate, similar to the age question, except this one comes down solidly on Goldschmidt’s side. Harper reached the big leagues in 2012, while Goldschmidt got a 48 game audition in 2011 before moving to full time duty in 2012. So we’re dealing with roughly similar careers.
Goldschmidt missed a large amount of time in one season, 2014, when he was hit on the hand in late July. Essentially, it was the same sort of thing Paul DeJong had happen to him this past season, only later in the year so it ended the season for Goldschmidt. Broken hands from fastballs are not, it seems, recurring injuries, and in the other six years of Goldschmidt’s career he has never played in fewer than 145 games. Five of the seven seasons he’s been in the big leagues he’s played in at least 155 games. Paul Goldschmidt is, short of getting plunked and having his hand broken, an iron man.
Harper, meanwhile, has had a rather checkered injury history. Four times in seven seasons he’s played in at least 139 games, but the other three have seen him appear in just 118, 100, and 111 games. From 2012-’18, Goldschmidt came to the plate 4531 times, compared to 3957 times for Harper. Essentially, over the course of seven years Paul Goldschmidt played one extra season more than Bryce Harper.
Now, to be fair, the fact Goldschmidt is substantially older makes this question more of a push than it might otherwise be. We should probably expect a decline in playing time for Goldschmidt earlier than we would for Harper. Still, though, if we’re looking for the player who has been much more dependable to this point in his career, Goldschmidt is an easy winner.
Looking at the Defense
We come now to one of the most interesting debates, to my mind, in this whole thing, which is the question of defense. Once upon a time, Bryce Harper was looked at as an all-world everything, capable of performing at an elite level in essentially every conceivable way on the baseball field. Those days are long gone, however, and Harper is now seen as roughly an average corner outfielder, albeit one who may occasionally seem to not get to a ball that seems catchable for whatever reason. Still, up until a horrible 2018 which saw him post some truly ghastly defensive numbers even in right field, Harper has been mostly a fairly solid defender at one of the less valuable positions on the field.
Meanwhile, Paul Goldschmidt plays maybe the least valuable position on the field (we’ll talk about whether that’s true or not in a moment), but does so at a positively elite level. Since 2012, Goldschmidt rates as a +53 defender overall by defensive runs saved, and he was still a +6 by DRS in 2018. (A +5 by plus/minus, as well.) To be fair, UZR has never liked Goldschmidt as much as DRS, but I’ll be honest: UZR feels wonky on first basemen to me in general. Inside Edge likes him a lot, the Fielding Bible guys always call him out as a star. My personal eye test tells me Goldschmidt is a fantastic defender as well, which I would be willing to discount if it weren’t for the vast majority of the data agreeing with that belief.
Now, there is a question about whether Harper may have been taking it easy in 2018, trying to make sure he didn’t get hurt heading into an historic free agency, and that’s the reason for his terrible fielding performance. That’s possible, I suppose. But even if we heavily discount the numbers from last year, he looks to be roughly average in right, versus Goldschmidt, who is a huge plus at the even less valuable first base.
However, I do have some thoughts on first base, both in terms of the defensive spectrum in general and what first base actually does. I know defensive metrics try to measure how many runs a first baseman saves by digging balls out on throws in the dirt and the like, but I feel like there is a lot of value at first base that we maybe don’t quite have a great grip on. Not a vast invisible mass of data like we had with catchers before framing and the like began to be figured in, but I still think there is some real value being missed in first base defense. Decision making on which balls to go after, the throws dug out, errors saved, extra bases saved even if a play isn’t made, extra confidence instilled in fielders when they throw to first, those sorts of things. I may be thinking there’s more to this than there really is, certainly; this is just something I’ve been mulling over the last couple years. But I do wonder if teams, such as maybe the Cardinals, feel there is some knock-on effect of having an excellent defender at first base that is hard to identify. I suppose we could look at how Cardinal infielders performed with Albert Pujols at first vs after he left, but he wasn’t the only personnel change over a span of years, so it seems like it would be tough to really nail down the effect, if there is one at all. does
Perhaps more to the point, though, I kind of wonder if our public version of WAR doesn’t underrate players at the bottom of the defensive spectrum. Or maybe not underrate them, but tells us something about them that is far more useful to us than it is to the people actually building a club. The idea of the defensive spectrum is to sort of level the playing field, so that a light-hitting shortstop can be directly compared to a slugging, lumbering first baseman, and we can compare their relative values without a whole bunch of caveats being thrown in constantly. We do that by adding runs of value to players who play tough positions, and subtracting runs from those who play less demanding positions. I have no problem with this in theory, and even in practice when we are comparing players for awards voting and discussions and things like that. However, if I’m actually assembling a team, I need a first baseman. I kind of feel like I don’t care that a light-hitting shortstop is theoretically just as valuable as a slugging first baseman, because they are not actually directly comparable players. Theoretically, a shortstop moving down the spectrum should be so much better at those positions that he overrides the loss of value from playing less demanding positions, but I think we all understand it doesn’t actually work that way in reality. If we take an average shortstop and move him to first base, does he actually become a +20-25 defender? I would tend to think not. Of course, that’s an edge case, and the idea of the spectrum isn’t to imagine relative skill, but rather to reflect relative scarcity of players at various positions.
But here’s the thing: again, you have to actually fill out all the spots on the diamond when you are building a team, and so cross-position comparisons are not, in my opinion, nearly so meaningful in that arena than in public analysis. Maybe you think a right fielder is more valuable than a first baseman, but I tend to think it’s actually not when you’re constructing a baseball team. And maybe if we moved Bryce Harper to first base he would suddenly be a defensive monster, but I also tend to think not, especially not in the beginning.
My point is this: when comparing players who do different things on the baseball diamond, I think that using the simple idea of the defensive spectrum does a disservice. The actual mechanics of putting together a team are much more complex than that, forcing us to consider a ton of different things to try and determine what the relative value of a good defender in one spot versus an indifferent defender somewhere else might be, including who we might have filling that spot otherwise.
All of which is a very long way of saying I think there is a pretty strong argument to be made that an excellent first baseman has more defensive value than a mediocre right fielder, particularly when we step outside the rigid framework of numerical analysis and consider the realities of building a club. So I think Goldschmidt has a real advantage here, in other words.
The Matt Holliday Comparison and BABIP
I have to mention this, only because it’s a thing I can’t quite push aside as a coincidence. Paul Goldschmidt is the biggest trade acquisition the Cardinals have made since 2009, when they made the move that brought Matt Holliday to St. Louis at the July trade deadline. We know, of course, that Holliday went on to be one of the most productive players in recent Cardinal history, even if there was always a segment of the fanbase that just didn’t like him for whatever reason.
It feels not at all coincidental that Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Holliday are remarkably similar hitters, in terms of the way they go about accomplishing their goals in the batter’s box. Now, admittedly, Goldschmidt has hit more homers in his career than Holliday ever did, but even so Goldy is still one of the more line-drive oriented hitters in baseball. Both players tended to be lower launch angle hitters, particularly considering how much raw power each possessed, which usually encourages a hitter to try and put the ball in the air more often. Both were also extreme BABIP outliers, Goldschmidt even more than Holliday, which is really saying something. Holliday’s career batting average on balls in play was .331, and that includes a couple of really rough seasons at the tail end of his career, when injuries really slowed him down and sapped the bat speed. Goldschmidt, meanwhile, is currently carrying a career BABIP (over seven plus seasons, remember), of .355, which is absolutely absurd. Paul Goldschmidt turns a ridiculous amount of batted balls into hits, even ignoring the ones that go over the fence.
Now, we should expect that .355 mark to regress toward the mean some, simply because it’s such an outlier, and of course the projection systems all see Goldschmidt’s BABIP dropping to a more reasonable level. (Not all the way down to league average, mind you, but down to something less astounding.) One could also argue that Goldschmidt, leaving a ballpark which is one of the hitter-friendliest in the game, might see a significant drop in his numbers. However, that argument was most definitely also made at the time of the Matt Holliday deal (somewhere in the RFT archives I’m fairly certainly there’s an article in which I used splits and park factors to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Matt Holliday just wasn’t that good a hitter other than the Coors Field effect, because I am a brilliant baseball writer), and it simply didn’t come to fruition. I’m not saying Goldschmidt will definitely not see some kind of fall off in his numbers. I’m saying that I wonder if the Cardinals haven’t perhaps identified a specific type of hitter or player they believe will both translate and age exceptionally well.
It also doesn’t hurt that Goldschmidt and Holliday are eerily similar in terms of size, build, unusual athleticism for players of their size, etc. Even the weirdly good baserunners thing comes into play here.
Again, I don’t know how meaningful this comparison is, really. But it feels like the Cardinals have just traded for a player who is remarkably similar to the last giant trade acquisition they made nearly a decade ago. And maybe there’s something to that. Or at least the team believes there’s something to it, which is just as interesting.
Harper, on the other hand, in case you’re wondering, is much all over the place in terms of BABIP. Whereas Goldschmidt’s BABIP has been between .340 and .360 in five of seven years, Harper’s BABIPs have gone thusly: .310, .306, .352, .369, .264, .356, .289. Now, those kinds of big swings are not, on their own, indicative of any kind of problem with Harper. He has been an extraordinary hitter most years even when his batted-ball luck didn’t give him a huge boost. And when it has given him that boost, the results have been ridiculous. So this isn’t an anti-Harper point.
Rather, this is a pro-Goldschmidt one, essentially suggesting there may be some repeatable skill that has allowed him to basically break the rules of baseball when it comes to success on batted balls for his whole career. He has never posted a BABIP below .340 in a full season (it was .323 in that first partial campaign), and has been above .350 in four of his seven years in the league. At some point, there is something about the consistency of hard contact that would seem to suggest this is a hitter who is set up to do extraordinary things; or rather, continue to do extraordinary things.
This is an interesting one, and I’m going to make it my final point. Bryce Harper is an outfielder, while Paul Goldschmidt is a corner infielder. I think we all understand it’s a fool’s errand to project out too long into the future when we’re talking about what is going to happen with a team’s talent base, as things change. (I know I mentioned this at some point earlier.) However, it’s worth considering at least for a moment what the Cardinals’ pipeline of minor league talent looks like right now, and what they might be looking at coming in the next couple years.
The thing is, the Cards still, even now, have an enormous amount of talent potentially percolating up in the outfield. Tyler O’Neill is basically here right now, making an impression in spring training, and probably needs an opportunity sooner than later. That’s going to be tough with both Marcell Ozuna and Dexter Fowler in place for 2019, but at some point in the near future it may become necessary for the Cardinals to make a move not just because they have too many outfielders, but for the express purpose of opening an opportunity for Tyler O’Neill. Oh, and Jose Martinez is still on the team as well, possibly just waiting for the universal DH to be announced.
It’s also a fact that Dylan Carlson is likely hitting Double A this season, either to begin the year or at midseason, so long as he continues to develop. Obviously it’s not a guarantee, but Carlson has very quietly just continued to improve and grow in the minors to this point, becoming a very intriguing prospect along the way. There’s also Lane Thomas jockeying for an opportunity. And Justin Williams trying to get the ball in the air and take advantage of his power. And Jhon Torres lurking in the lower levels of the system, waiting to explode up the ladder at some point.
My point is this: the Cardinals have an enormous amount of talent coming in the outfield, and they’ve already got a crowded situation in the present to deal with. Now, it would be completely fair for someone to point out that there is very, very little chance that any of that talent will ever match up to Bryce Harper, even the non-all-time great player we’ve ultimately gotten from him as opposed to the kid on the cover of SI at sixteen. However, if you believe in the pipeline, and think you may have multiple players needing opportunities within the next three years, I could see that being an argument against adding even a franchise cornerstone, although I would tend to think the quality of the player should override any concerns about position.
It’s also interesting to note, though, that the Cardinals are suddenly somewhat flush with emerging corner infield talent. Most of that talent is at third base currently, with guys like Nolan Gorman, Elehuris Montero, and Malcom Nunez all manning the hot corner, but since baseball doesn’t allow multiple players to play the same position at once, even if all three players make it they can’t all play at third base. Montero in particular seems to me like a good candidate to move over to first base, which would be great if that spot were not now blocked by an immovable object named Goldy. Sure, not blocked for long at this point, but as I’ve been saying throughout I have to believe the Cards are seriously locked in on keeping Goldschmidt around.
It’s also somewhat of an interesting thought exercise to consider whether it is good or not to place a long term solution at the spot on the field where all the misfit bats go. First base is the spot where seemingly all the positionless sluggers can at least try to fake it, so why lock yourself in to a single option there, when there might be multiple players whose bats dictate a roster spot, but can’t really do much else to hold down a different position? Well, the answer, of course, is that the quality of the player trumps position concerns, as I said just a moment or two ago, but it’s a thought still worth having, I think.
I’m not sure this bit favours either player. The Cards’ farm system is deep enough, and beginning to churn out enough exciting offensive talent, that really any position could potentially have players being blocked if they should develop to a high level. If pressed, I would say the torrent of outfield talent still in the system would make Harper a somewhat more redundant piece than Goldschmidt, but I’m not sure it’s enough of a difference, or enough of an impact either way, to really care that much about coming up with a real answer.
I apologise for the long road to get here; this is one of those columns that just sort of got away from me about midway through. However, I didn’t want to give short shrift to any aspect of the argument I could think of that seemed worth pursuing.
In the end, I think it’s still hard to really justify the Cardinals going with Paul Goldschmidt over Bryce Harper as an offensive centerpiece acquisition this offseason. At the same time, I find it hard to really blast the organisation for going the direction they did. Now, if someone were arguing they should have done both, because they clearly could if they wanted to, that’s a different argument, and one that I can see going either way on. The organisation pretty clearly isn’t willing to extend themselves to that level of inflexibility, though, and I honestly can say I see some reasons for their hesitation in doing so.
But that’s not what this was about. This was about Goldschmidt versus Harper, since that was the decision the organisation made. And really, it’s a tough call to make. The age of Harper may be the single thing that trumps everything else, since it affects what years the contract would buy, changes how we think of the aging curve, and makes the clear durability win for Goldschmidt less of a sure thing going forward. Still, I find it easy to argue that the Cardinals got the player who more fits their needs, and what they were clearly looking for on the market.
Of course, this is all predicated on the club actually being able to keep Goldschmidt around. If he does end up being just a one-year solution, then the decision looks much worse in hindsight, since they’ve only kicked the can down the road a year. But I don’t believe that will be the case, and I certainly don’t think it’s the organisation’s intent. I think the Cardinals came into this offseason looking to bring in one long-term offensive solution, and they had a choice to make once Paul Goldschmidt hit the trading block.
Sadly, after nearly 7000 words, I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer. I’m sure some will claim there is, and I’m sure most of those will come down on the Harper side. Some people are always, always convinced they’re right. But for me, I can see it both ways. I might favour one side or the other, but trying to parse out Harper vs Goldschmidt has not made it clear to me there’s a definitive right and a definitive wrong.
I guess the best I can do is this: I think the Cardinals made a very good decision, because I think both players would have been very good decisions. And I hope seven years from now we can all look back and say they made the right decision, even if both would still have been right.