Before Wednesday’s trade headlined by Paul Goldschmidt, the Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis Cardinals were relatively even on paper. But today, the two clubs inhabit completely different neighborhoods.
Arizona and St. Louis ended last year separated by 25 points in Elo rating, and the teams entered Wednesday just two games apart in FanGraphs’ projected standings for 2019. With the trade of the six-time All-Star, the clubs have seemingly chosen different paths. The Diamondbacks appear ready to join the Seattle Mariners as teams that contended in 2018, fell short and have elected to become less competitive to restore their depleted talent bases. The Cardinals add a star talent with the hope that they can close the gap in the National League Central and return the club to the postseason after a three-year absence.
The Diamondbacks are in a division with the powerful Los Angeles Dodgers, who are loaded with cash and talent and are heavy favorites in the NL West. Arizona already lost one key free-agent pitcher in Patrick Corbin, who agreed Tuesday to a deal with the Washington Nationals, and free-agent center fielder A.J. Pollock also figures to land elsewhere. The club has also expressed interest in trading ace Zack Greinke, whose contract accounted for 25.8 percent of the club’s opening day payroll this past season — the second-highest share in the majors. It’s a reminder that such contracts can hamstring teams’ abilities to build complete, competitive rosters.
Conversely, the Cardinals do not have a clear super team in their way in the NL Central. The Cubs might have limited ability to improve this offseason, but the FanGraphs’ forecast has the Brewers regressing in 2019. The Cardinals entered Wednesday projected for four fewer wins than the Cubs, three more wins than the Pirates and six more wins than the Brewers. After the trade, the FanGraphs projection had the Cardinals picking up three wins to be just one game behind the Cubs and nine games better than the Brewers. (The Diamondbacks fell from 82 to 80 wins.) The Cardinals have been stuck in the standings purgatory — winning 88, 83 and 86 games the past three years — where no club wants to reside, but they could break that streak this year.
The Diamondbacks went for it last year on the heels of a 93-win season and in the final year of control over Corbin and Pollock. St. Louis is now in a similar situation, as contributors like Marcell Ozuna, Miles Mikolas and Michael Wacha are free agents after 2019. Goldschmidt is under control for just one season before entering free agency. For the Cardinals, this is a win-now move.
And what St. Louis received in the deal is not only one of the game’s best hitters but also one of its most consistent.
In wins above replacement,1 Goldschmidt finished the past three seasons at 5.1, 5.2 and 5.0. He’s been worth at least 4.3 WAR every season since his first full year in 2012, when he finished at 2.8. Goldschmidt’s career slash line is .297/.398/.532. His slash line this past season? .290/.389/.533. He’s played in at least 155 games in five of the past six years.
Goldschmidt, 31, is still near his physical prime and offers consistent star power for a club sorely lacking it. St. Louis thought it was landing a star in Ozuna last winter, but he had a mildly disappointing season. Since 2016, the only Cardinals to deliver seasons of 4 WAR or better were Matt Carpenter (5.0) and Mikolas (4.3) this past season and Tommy Pham, who was traded to Tampa Bay last season, in 2017 (6.1). Goldschmidt’s 4.3 projected WAR is a big upgrade over the Cardinals’ weakest projected starting infielder, Jedd Gyorko (1.7 WAR) — who could be supplanted in the lineup by Carpenter moving from first to third. And Goldschmidt may not even be the Cards’ final step: Ownership hasn’t ruled out a pursuit of Bryce Harper.
While there is not a young star in the trade package, Goldschmidt didn’t come cheap. Some executives liked the return for Arizona, which included young major leaguers in pitcher Luke Weaver and catcher Carson Kelly, infield prospect Andy Young and the Cardinals’ Compensation Round B selection in the 2019 draft. The deal gives the Diamondbacks youth and a number of controllable years.
The Diamondbacks had the fifth-oldest groups of batters (at an average of 29.2 years old)2 and pitchers (29.6) last year. According to FanGraphs, Arizona entered the offseason with the game’s 26th-ranked farm system. Teams prize young, cheap, controllable talent — and now more than ever before, they are willing to endure deep, painful rebuilds to accumulate high draft picks and signing bonus pool space. The Astros and Cubs created a model to get to super-team status that other teams are following. Those clubs took rebuilding to extreme degrees, stringing together multiple 95-plus-loss seasons, but those paths resulted in World Series titles.
The Diamondbacks consider themselves to be retooling rather than entering a deep rebuild, though that might be an optimistic assessment: Arizona third baseman Jake Lamb, outfielder David Peralta and starting pitchers Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker are all eligible to become free agents within the next two to three years.
Kelly and Weaver immediately fill needs on the major league roster. They are not prospects that are years away from the majors, though they also lack star-level upside.3 “There are decisions that you want to do and there are decisions you feel like you have to do,” Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen said of Wednesday’s trade.
More than ever, teams seem comfortable entering retooling periods, but not every rebuild is a successful project. For the Cardinals, perhaps they’ll have to consider such a path down the road. As for 2019, they’re going for it.