When news broke of a major blockbuster trade on Wednesday afternoon, one which sent six-time All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly, minor league infielder Andy Young, and one of the competitive balance draft picks that the Cardinals are frequently mocked for receiving by those who think the Cardinals should be punished for drawing fans at a higher rate than their market size might suggest, consensus was overwhelmingly that the Cardinals came out ahead.
It wasn’t necessarily that the Arizona Diamondbacks lost the trade–trades are not always a zero-sum game, particularly when one team (the Cardinals) is trying to acquire short-term assets for a 2019 postseason run while the other team (the Diamondbacks) is looking to improve their postseason outlooks for future seasons rather than the upcoming one. But in St. Louis, a fan base that has largely (often justifiably) complained that the Cardinals front office has been too conservative in asset management was quick to offer credit for doing the thing they’d so frequently requested–a poll conducted by KMOV’s Brenden Schaeffer on Twitter which received 3,478 votes saw that 97% of respondents liked the trade for the Cardinals. Perhaps a Twitter poll isn’t going to be fool-proof, but with such a striking consensus, I feel confident in saying that the overall direction of the poll is accurate.
I voted yes in the poll because I believe that, in most layers of our current multiverse, this trade will benefit the Cardinals. As I addressed last week (though this is hardly a point I invented), Paul Goldschmidt is really, really good. The corner infield tandem of Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter is instantly one of the very best in baseball, even if it is a step down defensively from Matt Carpenter at first and Jedd Gyorko at third. Meanwhile, Luke Weaver was probably on the outside looking in to have a spot in the Opening Day rotation, Carson Kelly was at most going to back up a starting catcher in Yadier Molina who almost never takes days off, and neither Andy Young nor whomever gets drafted with the traded draft pick were likely to appear in the Majors at all in 2019. Next season, barring injury (which applies to every player in this trade and in baseball as a whole), the Cardinals will almost certainly benefit more from having Paul Goldschmidt than having the players required to acquire him. And as we know less about what each successive season will look like, there is more security in planning for next year than planning for several years down the road.
But the unanimity of the trade, the sense that the Cardinals pulled a fast one on a Major League Baseball front office in 2018, when every front office is pretty widely accepted to be to at least some extent smart, goes a bit far. The Cardinals may be more likely than not to benefit from the trade, but the potential downside for the Paul Goldschmidt trade has a far greater absolute value than the upside. I agree with all of the individual points made by Josh Matejka yesterday with the exception of the overall conclusion–that the Cardinals definitely “won” this trade. It is far too early to tell.
The inevitable comparison for this trade is the 2014 trade which brought Jason Heyward, also a superstar on the final year of his contract, from a rebuilding team to the Cardinals. In that case, the Luke Weaver equivalent was Shelby Miller, but while Miller had a down 2014, his prospect luster hadn’t worn off nearly as severely as that of Luke Weaver, who had a solid start to 2018 but over the final four months of the season stumbled to a 5.42 ERA, 4.97 FIP, and unceremonious demotion to the bullpen. To off-set this drop in quality of young starting pitcher, the Cardinals included another prospect whose stock had dropped in the form of Carson Kelly. While Kelly had been hyped as one of the best catching prospects in baseball, as well as the heir apparent to Yadier Molina, he struggled mightily in the Majors and couldn’t beat out Francisco Pena for playing time following his 2018 September call-up (side note: Carson Kelly probably should’ve beat out Francisco Pena for playing time following his 2018 September call-up).
Weaver and Kelly, the headliners of the package sent to Arizona (Andy Young is an interesting player but he is much less heralded), are examples of prospects on whom the Cardinals sold low. This has been a trend over the last few years for the Cardinals. Sometimes it works out really well–the Cardinals seemingly sold low on Allen Craig in July 2014, but it turned out that his stock had even further to plummet. Other times, the Cardinals have been burned.
A year after trading Aledmys Diaz to the Toronto Blue Jays for J.B. Woodman, a minor leaguer who has since been released by the Cardinals, the Blue Jays flipped Diaz (after a better-than-2017-worse-than-2016 year) for a legitimate pitching prospect in Trent Thornton. At last season’s trade deadline, the Cardinals traded slumping outfielder Tommy Pham, and while Pham’s offensive rebound with the Tampa Bay Rays is almost certainly exaggerated due to unsustainable good fortune, the Cardinals are filled with questions in the outfield which, barring an unexpected Bryce Harper signing, will probably linger more loudly than if Tommy Pham (or, for that matter, fellow sold-low outfielders Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty) were in the mix for 2019. And of course there is Shelby Miller; while it’s hard to get too upset about a trade which improved the team for 2015 enough that it may have been the difference between a division title and third place, it’s also worth noting that the Atlanta Braves sold high on Miller after one season and acquired their shortstop of the future and a Gold Glove center fielder in return.
Last season, the Cardinals traded prospects for a more obvious regression candidate slugger in Marcell Ozuna, but those prospects never had the upside of Luke Weaver nor Carson Kelly. Sandy Alcantara, the featured prospect of the package, was an afterthought in the Cardinals’ stable of young pitchers, and Magneuris Sierra was a prospect sold at the peak of his value–his 19 wRC+ in 156 plate appearances in 2018 with the Miami Marlins demonstrated that. Luke Weaver, meanwhile, was the Cardinals’ #2 prospect in 2016 before graduating to the big leagues, where he struck out over 11 batters per nine as a starter in 2017. Carson Kelly was a Top 100 prospect entering 2018 (FanGraphs had him at #85) and while he struggled in 42 MLB plate appearances (extremely Allen Iverson voice we’re talking about 42 MLB plate appearances), he struck out as often as he walked in AAA Memphis, which isn’t too shabby for a defense-first catcher.
Perhaps Weaver and Kelly, particularly the latter, were blocked from a major MLB role in St. Louis, but both players could conceivably act as depth in 2019 while potentially recovering some of their lost prospect pedigree in the bullpen or in the minors, respectively. Neither has the certainty associated with them of Paul Goldschmidt, a metronomically consistent player whom I am excited to see on the Cardinals in 2019, but Goldschmidt’s potential contribution in terms of this trade is limited to one season (he could garner a compensation pick, which isn’t nothing, but also I’ve barely mentioned the draft pick the Cardinals already traded to Arizona for a reason).
Could Paul Goldschmidt re-sign in St. Louis? Sure (whether he should is a different discussion, one which I’m sure we will have throughout next season), but it shouldn’t really factor too much in the calculus of this trade, unless we are to believe that Paul Goldschmidt will fall in love with St. Louis and immediately sign a below-market deal just because he has such warm feelings towards the local fans or toasted ravioli. Signing Jason Heyward to an extension was seen as a major part of his acquisition, too, and not only did that not happen, but in retrospect, it’s a good thing for the Cardinals that it didn’t. The same thing was mentioned for Matt Holliday, and while Holliday did eventually re-sign in St. Louis, he was more than willing to test the waters of free agency first. Paul Goldschmidt will probably enjoy his time in St. Louis in 2019 (as, by all credible accounts, Heyward did in 2015), but that doesn’t mean he’s going to act irresponsibly with his potential future earnings.
In the end, the Cardinals get one year of Paul Goldschmidt and the Diamondbacks get up to 23 MLB years of Luke Weaver (5), Carson Kelly (6), Andy Young (6), and a potential draft pick (6). Of course, this same phrasing was used to detract from the Cardinals’ acquisition of Marcell Ozuna, a trade I liked at the time and, despite a pedestrian season from the left fielder, one I still like. It’s very possible that Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly simply aren’t that good, and that the Diamondbacks won’t even want the duo for their arbitration years, and that this trade follows the path of the Matt Holliday and Jason Heyward trades as worthwhile ones which boosted the Cardinals roster immediately while not significantly hurting it in the long-term. But this is unknowable, and to immediately chalk up this trade as a steal for the Cardinals is overly optimistic.