NEW YORK — At the start of a conversation Friday at his locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at Citi Field, Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt stood up and offered his chair, suggesting he snag one from a teammate’s nearby locker. That way, if another Cardinal looked sideways at losing his chair or mumbled a complaint, Goldschmidt would be sitting in it, not a reporter.
It was a subtle gesture, but in the ecosystem of the clubhouse a telling one – because if any eyes rolled or tongues wagged, if there was any issue at all, Goldschmidt positioned himself to take responsibility, not someone else.
It would not be the last time he did that in the interview.
The topics ranged from what support a new team and new coaches should offer an established player to the pressure inherent in signing the franchise’s largest contract, ever. He turned on each one, framing his answers through a personal lens. And having seen enough off-speed pitches in his career, especially this season, he leaned forward when he got the fastball, the question at the crux of the discussion. He met it directly.
“Why these questions are coming is because I haven’t played as good as I have in the past, or as a group we haven’t,” Goldschmidt said. “Let’s just be honest. The results that happen on the field, whether it’s individually or as a team, shapes everyone’s opinion. Even if everything is completely the same, the results that happen are going to lead to that judgment, whether it’s good or bad. You trade for a guy, he plays well – the process has already been done, the decision been made. That’s just the fact. Even without a trade – the way a team plays, that’s everything.”
Goldschmidt, the centerpiece of the Cardinals’ offseason and their lineup, has, like the team, groped for his groove so far this season. His .767 OPS entering Saturday’s game is off his career .920. His slugging percent idled at a career-low .421 during a second sluggish start in as many years.
The six-time All-Star was acquired in the club’s most significant trade since the Cardinals brought in Matt Holliday in July 2009, and Goldschmidt’s five-year, $130-million extension surpassed Holliday’s seven-year, $120-million deal as the team’s largest. If Holliday was peak trade for the current Cardinals’ front office – at a time when they routinely got great returns for minimal or reasonable cost – then Goldschmidt’s arrival comes after a lull, one that has the Cardinals auditing how they make, and make the most of, acquisitions.
Marcell Ozuna and Goldschmidt were acquired in back-to-back winters to bring the thunder – and, of course, still have time to get rolling – but deals for lightning strikes and players whose forecast contribution the Cardinals counted on are catching up. In the past two years, to clear roster clutter or redundancies and acquire specific styles of players, the Cardinals have traded a sensation and potential All-Star to the Yankees. They’ve moved a 5.0-WAR player to the Tampa Bay Rays, two starters for the Mariners’ rotation, and an ascending center fielder to Cleveland. In exchange, the Cardinals received a handful of players they’ve turned to for help, but most of whom were in the minors as recently as this past week, with the exception of right handed reliever Giovanny Gallegos.
Luke Voit, dealt to the Yankees for Gallegos and lefty Chasen Shreve, led all American League first basemen in All-Star voting a week ago. Less than 19 months after the Cardinals traded him to Toronto, Aledmys Diaz, now with Houston, has received more All-Star votes than any Cardinal other than Yadier Molina, according to Major League Baseball’s most recent tallies. All-Star voting is hardly a reliable measure, but it does capture the enthusiasm for players – and for a team. Wins Above Replacement offers a better metric, but not better returns from the Cardinals.
Since they last reached the playoffs, in 2015, the Cardinals have received 18.0 Wins Above Replacement from acquired players. Jedd Gyorko has contributed 8.6 WAR. The players traded away gave their new teams 25.7 WAR, 4.9 belonging to Tommy Pham.
“I do feel like sometimes we’ve traded to trade,” acknowledged John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “I don’t know if that’s been in our best interests. There’s a lot of pressure to do something when you’re playing around .500, that action is better than inaction. I think we’ve succumbed to that.”
“The amazing Luke Voit,” as The New York Post recently called the St. Louis-area native, had been marooned at Class AAA Memphis. His position, first base, was manned by Matt Carpenter and would eventually be deeded to Goldschmidt, and between their times there were scarce at-bats for Voit. The Yankees, out to fill a vacancy created by injury, had plenty. The at-bats let loose a Bronx Bomber. Earlier this season Voit had an on-base streak snapped after 42 games – the third-longest in the past 75 years for the Yankees. His .895 OPS is third at his position in the American League. Voit recently explained to the Post how he “was in a bad place last year, just getting stuck and putting up good numbers. I was getting frustrated and I wasn’t being the same baseball player I am now.”
Pham can empathize.
A breakout force for the Cardinals in 2017 and starter to open the next season, Pham saw some of his numbers deflate and his playing time leak toward other outfielders, like Harrison Bader. He was frustrated, and the Cardinals were keen to add left handed depth to their roster. They traded two center fielders, Pham and Oscar Mercado, to Tampa Bay and Cleveland, respectively, on the same day to free starts for Bader and rearrange the roster. When he reported to the Rays, Pham had a .399 slugging percentage and a .730 OPS. Those soared to .622 and 1.071 in his 39 games with the Rays last season and he’s got an .865 OPS so far this season. He told Post-Dispatch baseball writer Rick Hummel this past week that the Rays showed him some advanced metrics that reinforced his confidence with the message, “You’re the same hitter. Just bad luck.”
From Voit to Pham, Mariners lefty Marco Gonzales to Oakland outfielder Stephen Piscotty and $50-million Blue Jay Randal Grichuk, former Cardinals have been carried by trade winds to take root and blossom elsewhere.
When the Cardinals made changes at manager and hitting coach a year ago, an official said one area of concern was how acquired players had seen “regression.” That was true for free agents Mike Leake, Brett Cecil, and Greg Holland. Some of it could be explained by injury (Ozuna’s shoulder), but others had to do with a combination of usage and support.
“Our job is to get the most out of the team and the players we have,” manager Mike Shildt said. “That is ultimately our – mine – responsibility. The front office provides us a team. It’s not my job to acquire players. They give us a product. They give us players. They said, effectively, they want the best out of them. It’s our determination what that looks like.”
To start, it looks like listening – then utilizing.
The Cardinals got 30 homers from Gyorko in 400 at-bats in his first season with the team and 50 homers in his first two seasons. Acquired from Atlanta on Dec. 1, 2016, in exchange for lefty Jaime Garcia, Gant has flourished as a late-game reliever for the Cardinals, improving to 6-0 in the role with three sterling innings Friday. For Goldschmidt, Ozuna, and other established acquisitions, they’ve taken their cues from the players, looking to complement not correct. In Goldschmidt’s case this season, hitting coach Jeff Albert and Shildt have urged Goldschmidt to look at video of when he’s had most productive stretches, not belabor over video of poor stretches because “you’re going to add to frustration if you only dissect what’s wrong.”
“As a player you have to know yourself,” Goldschmidt said. “All the good (coaches) … are there to supplement and help. Here are your strengths. Good, open communication.”
Still sitting in his teammate’s chair, Goldschmidt brings that topic back to himself.
What he looks for in a coach, he explained is “another set of eyes and ears,” but ultimately the improvements and production is in his hands.
Ozuna, who has turned a power-spiked start to the season into 4.4 WAR for the Cardinals since the trade, and Goldschmidt have the talent to tilt the scales of recent trades. They also could help inform how the Cardinals re-evaluate the peripheral trades. A mad hunt for left handed relief dovetailed with trading Voit and Pham. The Cardinals had pitching depth but lacked power in the system, so they flipped Gonzales for outfielder Tyler O’Neill. Leake didn’t think he was a fit for the Cardinals’ clubhouse and his performance flagged, so the Cardinals paid Seattle to take the right hander. Piscotty was traded to help him get closer to home as the Cardinals acquired his replacement, Ozuna. Diaz, Grichuk, and others were moved because of younger players pushing for playing time. The musical chairs continued.
When the trades stopped, some players have seats and flourish (example: Paul DeJong as Diaz’s replacement). Others have their seats slip out from underneath them.
“In some trades, we have seen (lower returns) take place, and that’s when you take a deeper dive into what went into that acquisition decision,” Mozeliak said. “We could have done it differently in some of those cases. We have to look at how we created opportunities for others. When you look at the recent trades – not the huge deals for Goldie or Marcell – you consider what would the playing opportunity have been for the guy there? We went for flexibility or more depth. As we approach this trading deadline, maybe we look at it a new way.
“I want to think of not just the arbitrage.”
In other words: think impact. Instead of measuring trades on long term scales – like WAR – follow the point that Goldschmidt made about short-term gains, in the standings.
Rebuilding teams must win trades.
Contending teams use trades to win games.
Being traded is a first for Goldschmidt as it playing with a $100-million contract and all the expectations that come with them. He had to offer the chair back to his teammates once as he spoke, but by the time he considered the pressure the trade or the contract placed on him, he leaned back in that chair. He recalled a moment from when he signed an extension in Arizona.
“I was asked, ‘Does this bring pressure?’” Goldschmidt said. “It just depends on how you look at it. Some guys, yes, it brings pressure. For some guys it can be a relief. I look at it like this: It is what it is, now let’s go play. To circle all the way back to your question: If this team wins, the individual stats won’t be that important. The team won. If we don’t, then all the individual stuff will be judged.”