Following Matt Holliday’s nine-year reign as the owner of the largest contract in St. Louis Cardinals history, new first baseman Paul Goldschmidt seized the crown yesterday by signing a five-year, $130 million extension with the Cardinals, one which will keep the long-time Arizona Diamondbacks slugger in St. Louis through the 2024 season, during which he will turn 37 in September.

It is natural and predictable that Goldschmidt’s contract will be compared to the highest-profile contract extension of the last week, the one signed by Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels which tacked an additional ten years and $360 million to his existing contract through 2020. But the two aren’t especially comparable for several reasons.

  1. While Goldschmidt is a very good player, he’s somebody whose top comparable player by ZiPS is Kevin Youkilis (who was a three-time All-Star and an all-around excellent contributor to some terrific Boston Red Sox teams). Mike Trout is the kind of player whose top ZiPS comp is Willie Mays.
  2. Mike Trout had two years remaining on his contract and Paul Goldschmidt had one year remaining. As a general rule of thumb, a player is more likely to fall apart (or at least not be quite *as* good) over a two year span than over one year. Longer term means increased risk. Whether this same risk applies to a player as good as Mike Trout is a different story.
  3. Mike Trout has spent nearly a decade in the Los Angeles Angels organization, including seven-plus seasons with the Major League team. From far outside of it, being on the Angels seems moderately annoying relative to other MLB teams–they haven’t won a playoff game during the Trout era and he has to settle for being on the clear number-two team in his own metro area–but apparently Mike Trout really seems to like it. While he would probably make a lot more money overall by waiting two years for free agency, this not only assures Mike Trout becoming a half-billionaire, but it allows him to continue doing something he clearly enjoys–being the starting center fielder for the Los Angeles Angels.

While the Cardinals organization will tell anybody who will listen about how they like acquiring players, letting them fall in love with St. Louis, and then re-signing them on the cheap, this is by definition not what happened. Perhaps the two sides believe that Goldschmidt and the Cardinals are going to get along swimmingly, and there’s probably something to that belief if their brief time together led to an additional half-decade commitment, but the “playing in front of St. Louis fans will win him over!” claim is even more transparently pandering to those fans than it ever has been.

While the raw dollar amount of Goldschmidt’s contract looks miniscule compared to the off-season signings of Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado, he is also signing for fewer years. He’s also the oldest of the group, and while the other four players are likely at or near their peaks, Goldschmidt is probably past his. Which doesn’t mean he can’t still be very, very good, but he’s on the wrong side of thirty and projects to be the worst of the five next season by projection systems, and will likely continue to be the projected worst of the five for the rest of his career.

$26 million for 2020 Paul Goldschmidt will probably still be a good deal for the Cardinals, but it is reasonable to wonder how that salary will look for 2024 Paul Goldschmidt. The length of this contract may also close the book on any further extension for Matt Carpenter (whom ZiPS projects to be better than Goldschmidt in 2019); while Carpenter’s documented defensive woes are exaggerated relative to his actual defensive metrics, he will probably need to play first base in order to be a serviceable player beyond the next season or two. The only way to realistically picture Matt Carpenter on the 2021 Cardinals is if the National League adopts the designated hitter.

That said, the argument for Paul Goldschmidt is a far more instinctive one–he’s a really good baseball player and having really good baseball players is helpful. The entirety of the Cardinals starting lineup with the exception of Marcell Ozuna is now intact for 2020–the notion of the Cardinals being “all-in” on 2019 seems less and less true, which is good because why wouldn’t an all-in team sign Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel (it’s just confusing, that’s all)? And the increasingly scarce pool of available high-end offensive talent in the 2019 free agent class (with the extensions of Arenado and now Goldschmidt, the top of the position player crop is Anthony Rendon and hoping Josh Donaldson bounces back) meant that the Cardinals were incentivized to land a top player rather than taking their chances months later.

The contract is neither a massive overpay nor a massive bargain. The deal is exactly Fine. The Cardinals are filled with average players, and when the team has a chance to land firmly above-average players, they know that they will be paying for premium players at a higher rate. And since premium players are likely the difference between making the postseason and missing it, the higher rate is simply the cost of doing business.

But the flaw in analyzing this transaction is viewing it in the context of the previous Paul Goldschmidt transaction–the trade which brought him to St. Louis in the first place. The Cardinals acquired Goldschmidt for 2019 at a bargain rate and in turn, they sent high-upside prospects Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly to Arizona. They did this without assurances that Goldschmidt would remain in St. Louis, and if he did, it would be with a handsome raise attached. Money is the only cost of the Paul Goldschmidt extension, which reflects that five years of age 32-36 Paul Goldschmidt at $26 million per year is far less valuable than one year of age 31 Paul Goldschmidt at $14.5 million.

The notion that the Cardinals somehow needed to make this move to validate their first Goldschmidt move is built at least partially on the longstanding assumption that a Goldschmidt extension would reflect positively on the Cardinals organization beyond “they were willing to give him a bunch of money”. An extension, as with the ones of Mark McGwire or Scott Rolen or Matt Holliday (the latter’s free agency into January 2010 must be ignored forever), proved in the magical powers of The Cardinal Way, and that Jason Heyward didn’t re-sign with the Cardinals following the 2015 season was a reflection of some sort of disturbance in the force.

But these contracts can generally be explained logically. McGwire and Rolen may have taken slightly less money than they could’ve gotten as free agents, but they each received certainty of many millions of dollars and the chance to play, respectively, under his beloved former manager and close to home. Heyward signed in Chicago for less total money, but with a contract structure he believed would earn him more money in the long term. Holliday straight up took the most money. Goldschmidt didn’t quite do this, but the odds that his value was going to increase substantially from 5/130 were pretty low. He’s locking in tremendous wealth right now without having to risk free agency.

Paul Goldschmidt is going to be a Cardinal for the next six seasons, and that’s awesome. And hopefully we will continue to think that’s awesome in six years and that his $26 million salary won’t feel like an albatross which inhibits the Cardinals from signing younger, better free agents.

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