December 5, 2018 was a notably slow day at work for me. It was the kind of day where I sat at my computer and stared at my e-mail inbox. It wasn’t that I had checked out from doing work–it was that work had checked out from me doing work. I was going to a St. Louis Blues game that night (they lost in a shootout to the Oilers–this was so long ago that the Blues lost hockey games), and in the interest of hanging out at a bar instead, I offered to leave early in exchange for coming in early on Friday, which had to be a busier day. So at 3:52 p.m., I entered Llewelyn’s Pub in Soulard.
About a mile and a half down the road, the St. Louis Cardinals front office hadn’t approached “stare at Outlook” mode. General Manager Michael Girsch and President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak were crossing t’s and dotting i’s on a transaction that the organization had been promising from the beginning of the off-season. And three minutes after I approached the bar, befoer I’d even gotten a chance to order a beer, Jon Heyman was the first to report what had just happened. The St. Louis Cardinals had traded for Paul Goldschmidt.
Thankfully, Josh Matejka quickly answered my “hey, can somebody write about Goldschmidt?” call, so for at least the night, I was free to meditate on what had happened. Unlike Josh, who wrote that the trade was “definitely a win”, my opinion on the move was a bit more measured (note: while we tend to view “measured” opinions as analogous to “good” ones, this isn’t necessarily the case). But I was excited. This was Paul Goldschmidt, one of the ten best baseball players of the previous half-decade. This was the most consistent offensive weapon to don a Cardinals uniform since Albert Pujols. This was Christmas in, well, December, but early December!
But I was also anxious. This is far more a reflection on me and my own sensibilities than on the actual quality of the Paul Goldschmidt trade. What the trade reflected was that the Cardinals were going all-in for the 2019 season. It meant that the Cardinals, who were going to be playoff contenders with or without the perennial All-Star first baseman, were risking parts of their long-term future–Yadier Molina heir apparent Carson Kelly and occasionally brilliant young starting pitcher Luke Weaver–for one season.
My personal nature is one of caution. I’m the kind of guy who hits on 12 in Blackjack when the dealer is showing a 10 but immediately regrets the decision, because I just know I’m getting dealt a face card. When I order pizza, I never order toppings unless they’re included with the deal I’m ordering–that’s just extravagant! Cheese will suffice! I like the safe, sure thing. And this is part of why I’m not a MLB GM. I don’t have the intestinal fortitude to make those decisions. I’d be the guy insisting the Cardinals not include Andy Young because, hey, he could turn into the next Yairo Munoz!
The closest, most modern parallel to the Paul Goldschmidt trade for the Cardinals came in November 2014, when the Cardinals sent Shelby Miller, one season removed from being a Rookie of the Year finalist, and prospect Tyrell Jenkins to the Atlanta Braves for two veterans–relief pitcher Jordan Walden, and more notably, right fielder Jason Heyward. Heyward was easily the trade’s biggest name and most established star, but unlike Miller, who had one more year of making league minimum before three years of salary arbitration, and Jenkins, who had yet to make the Majors, Heyward had just one year remaining until he would hit free agency. The 2015 Cardinals were going to be better, but unless Jordan Walden materialized into something significant, this was a move for the 2015 team. It was about the short-term, not the long-term.
It would be hard to argue that the Cardinals didn’t come out ahead in the trade. While Shelby Miller did bounce back for the Braves in 2015, he wasn’t materially better than Carlos Martinez, who took his spot in the Cardinals rotation. And in subequent seasons, Miller’s career began to fall apart. Meanwhile, Jason Heyward was a true five-tool superstar for the 2015 Cardinals. He helped lead the Cardinals to their first 100-win season in a decade and, if Wins Above Replacement is to be believed, the benefit Heyward provided over his replacement in right field was probably the difference between winning the NL Central and finishing in the third place spot occupied in reality by the 97-win Chicago Cubs.
And yet there was something deeply unsatisfying in retrospect about the Heyward trade. It doesn’t feel like as big of a win as the numbers say it should. At the end of the day, the Cardinals lost in the NLDS in four games to the Chicago Cubs, the team with which Heyward would sign two months later as a free agent.
I spent much of 2015 simultaneously being engrossed by the tremendous success of the St. Louis Cardinals and fearing it. We all knew the Chicago Cubs were coming–they had the most acclaimed farm system I had ever seen, and unlike the current dominant minor league system, the San Diego Padres, they had the demonstrable financial muscle of playing in the third-biggest media market in the country. Knowing how good Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Addison Russell were, and knowing that the team could continue to build upon its Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester-led rotation was terrifying. It wasn’t that the Cubs might be better than the Cardinals–it was that the Cardinals might be preparing for a long run of playing second-fiddle to the Cubs, and that the Jason Heyward trade may have been a concession by the organization that they knew they needed to strike before the Cubs dynasty began.
While not feeling as happy during 2015 as I probably should have was unfortunate, it did come with a neat side effect of not being completely crushed when Jason Heyward opted not to re-sign with the Cardinals and instead went to the Chicago Cubs. It made sense. While Heyward’s infamous “aging core” comments were taken largely out of context, it was hard to argue with the basic premise of it–compared to the Cubs, whose superstars were largely youngsters, the top Cardinals were in their thirties. Sure, the Cardinals had terrific 2015 seasons from early-20s players such as Carlos Martinez and Randal Grichuk, but while the Cardinals had an incredible run following a 2011 championship season while they also had a top farm system, it looked like that run was coming to an end.
But the most stinging part of Heyward going to the Cubs was that it showed the Cardinals weren’t special. Some Cubs ultra-partisans tried to paint Heyward’s departure as proof that St. Louis was a horrible place to play, but that wasn’t it. By all accounts, Heyward enjoyed his season in St. Louis, but there was nothing magical about it. He had a good time. And when a seemingly financially advantageous offer came from the Cubs, that was enough. This didn’t make Jason Heyward a bad guy. It made him a guy who wasn’t from St. Louis nor Chicago and viewed the cities for what they were–great baseball cities with great fans that aren’t actually magical.
St. Louis prides itself on being a magical baseball place, though. It’s not enough to be a good baseball city. This is our thing. This is what we do. It wasn’t fair to place an expectation on somebody to validate the way we felt about ourselves, but that was how it turned out.
The 2015 Cardinals were the last Cardinals team to make the playoffs, and of the thirteen players who played in the team’s most recent playoff victory, Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS, only three remain on the Cardinals–Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, and Kolten Wong. And yet, throughout those three-plus years, the Cardinals have never sunk into the pits of utter baseball despair. The team has consistently fielded a winner–an oft-frustrating winner which hasn’t won as often as demanding Cardinals fans have hoped, but a team which remains viable enough to keep the games interesting until, in the worst of these seasons, there were three games left.
For what baseball is, this is a wonderful thing for a team to do–to remain in contention. It has been over a decade since the Cardinals were eliminated from playoff contention with over a week remaining in the season. This means a summer of hope. The playoffs are great, and of course I want the Cardinals to make them, but viability means warm summer nights with friends and family spent following the team. Those nights can happen without the Cardinals, but the structure of the game makes it easier to builda round.
When Paul Goldschmidt signed a five-year extension to remain a St. Louis Cardinal through 2024 last week, it didn’t improve their odds of contention in 2019 one iota. What it did do, for the sake of my own personal happiness, was more important–it sent the message that the St. Louis Cardinals, by virtue of paying a middle-of-the-order bat $26 million per season for the next half-decade, intend to continue to compete. The contract isn’t a bargain, and from a strictly strategic standpoint, it could backfire. But it shows initiative.
The success of a baseball team being determined solely by winning the World Series is a bleak way to view the sport–after all, only one team out of thirty can win it. But a baseball team can provide moments, and I am filled with a sense of renewed optimism that the St. Louis Cardinals will continue to provide enough of those moments to provide me with joy in my life. Surely, they will frustrate me, and surely, they will irritate me, but they will continue to serve as the central organizing principle of my life. And that’s all I can really ask.