Paul Goldschmidt reintroduces St. Louis Cardinals to NL Central contention

St. Louis’ acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt reminds the rest of the National League Central that the Cardinals will not be overshadowed by the I-94 war in 2019.

Lost in the closing weeks of the 2018 race for the NL Central was the fact that the St. Louis Cardinals remarkably pulled themselves back from the brink. While the Chicago Cubs blew a six-game lead, lost the division to Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers and then were summarily dispatched from the postseason by the Colorado Rockies, the Cardinals salvaged their season by jettisoning Mike Matheny, installing Mike Shildt as the new skipper and turning a season that many thought was a lost cause into relevant baseball almost to September’s end.

What looked like a team on the verge of implosion after a disastrous June and July pocked with reports of a toxic clubhouse, looked like a fresh, upstart and rejuvenated ballclub in August that simply ran out of gas in September. Part of the problem was an uncharacteristic lack of offense: Paul DeJong struggled to get on base and hit for power, Dexter Fowler went AWOL (almost literally), Tommy Pham was shipped to Tampa, Marcell Ozuna played through significant shoulder troubles, while Luke Voit was traded to the Yankees, Matt Adams out-Schoop’d Jonathan Schoop in his second Cardinals stint, Yadier Molina got older and the offensive load fell to Matt Carpenter, who played out of his mind, and DH-in-waiting Jose Martinez.

Carpenter and Martinez were outstanding. The young guns–Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Yairo Munoz, et al–are all still some ways away from being everyday to impact contributors with the parent club. The Cardinals have been spoiled with fantastic corner infielders throughout their storied history: Albert Pujols, Mark McGwire, Keith Hernandez, Scott Rolen, Ken Boyer, Stan Musial, Orlando Cepeda, even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by Dick Allen.

And now, they’ve just added an MVP-caliber first baseman to help bolster the offense in Paul Goldschmidt.

Goldschmidt’s 5.4 bWAR in 2018 bests Carpenter’s 4.9. His OPS+ (139) and XBH (73) are second only to Carpenter (143, 78). He’d also lead the ’18 Cardinals in strikeouts, but Goldschmidt’s first third of the season was uncharacteristic and Goldy ended up having to disproportionately carry the Arizona Diamondback offense with AJ Pollock unable to stay off the DL. This is Goldschmidt’s contract year and a chance to cash in on one more big free agent contract.

For John Mozeliak and company, this is about as close to a no-brainer as one can get.

And the thought of Goldschmidt regularly playing in hitters’ parks in Cincinnati, Chicago and Milwaukee? I feel good about the Brewers sustaining their success going into 2019, but Goldschmidt in the division terrifies me.

Now, Shildt can theoretically pencil in Carpenter / Goldschmidt / Ozuna in the 2-3-4 spots with Kolten Wong, DeJong and Martinez still in the mix. This went from being a light-hitting Cardinals club to a lineup with serious lumber. Baserunning will continue to be a challenge, but lots of doubles and dingers can make up for a lack of speed. And all of this compliments a pitching staff that gave up a league-best 144 home runs (minus Luke Weaver, who was the centerpiece of the return package to Arizona.) Keeping the ball in the park, while providing more capability to hit the ball out of the park? Stealing a few wins from the Cubs and Brewers could be all the Cardinals need to reclaim their familiar spot atop the Central.

The rest of the NLC can hope that Goldschmidt’s 2018 was not an aberration but a sign of diminishing skill. The HRs declined some, the OPS+ shaved back a few points, strikeouts were up, walks and runs down. How much of that is regression and how much of that is a product of his team? Given how he bounced back in the second half and how brutal the NL West was down the stretch with Colorado and Los Angeles charging toward the division crown, the safer bet is to think Goldschmidt still has at least one more MVP-grade season and several more All-Star-level campaigns left before age finally chases him down.

The Brewers fan in me hates this move, but the baseball guy in me refuses to let the homer win in this situation. Paul Goldschmidt is a great ballplayer and the perfect addition to a Cardinals team desperately in need of a centerpiece. What was already shaping up to be a tightly-contested two-way race for the 2019 NL Central is now looking more and more like a battle royal.

And we haven’t yet even gotten to the Winter Meetings.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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