Cardinals and Goldschmidt Catch Extension Fever

Extension fever is gripping major league baseball. In the wake of deals that short-circuited the highly anticipated free agencies of veterans Nolan Arenado and Mike Trout, and delayed the onset of those of Alex Bregman, Aaron Hicks, Eloy Jimenez, Miles Mikolas, Luis Severino, Blake Snell, and others, the latest player to take himself off the market is Paul Goldschmidt. The 31-year-old Cardinals first baseman has reportedly agreed to a five-year, $130 million extension for the 2020-24 seasons, a generous-looking deal in light of the past two winters’ frosty free agent proceedings.

Three and a half months after he was traded by the Diamondbacks in exchange for Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver, Andy Young, and a Competitive Balance B pick, it still feels weird to type “Cardinals first baseman” in connection to Goldschmidt, who over the course of his eight-year major league career had become the face of the Diamondbacks’ franchise. An eighth-round pick out of Texas State University who barely grazed prospect lists — Baseball Prospectus ranked him 10th in 2011 (a “Two-Star Prospect”), while Baseball America ranked him 11th, good enough to make their annual Prospect Handbook but not even the team top 10 published over the winter — he nonetheless made six All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, finished in the top three of the MVP voting three times, and helped the team to two playoff berths during his run in Arizona. However, the Diamondbacks couldn’t get past the Division Series either in 2011 or ’17 despite Goldschmidt homering four times and slugging .688 in eight postseason games.

Even given Arizona’s lack of postseason success, that’s the type of player most teams would try to lock up long-term. The Diamondbacks did ink Goldschmidt to a five-year, $32 million extension circa March 2013, and in February 2017, team CEO Derrick Hall spoke of hoping that “he’s here for the long haul,” but by January 2018, it appeared that they were gearing up for life without their star slugger.

As was noted multiple times in this space, Goldschmidt started the 2018 season slowly, slugging .393 with just a 95 wRC+ through the end of May, and showed signs of slowing bat speed based upon his inability to catch up to high-velocity four-seam fastballs, posting just a .238 wOBA against heaters 95 mph or higher (down from .324 and .319 over the previous two seasons, and in the 14th percentile). His production appears to have been cut significantly by the new humidor in Chase Field (he slugged .420 with a 108 wRC+ at home, .638 with a 180 wRC+ away), but all told, he finished at .290/.389/.533 with 33 homers, a 145 wRC+ (one point above his career average) and 5.1 WAR, 0.1 behind Freddie Freeman for the lead among all first basemen. Projection-wise, he was second on our recent Positional Power Rankings, published on Monday.

While the Diamondbacks exercised Goldschmidt’s $14.5 million option for this season last October, they didn’t get very far when it came to another extension. They reportedly discussed one before trading him, but the team’s focus on cutting payroll and moving into rebuilding mode — after a rough September undid a season in which they spent 125 days with a share of first place in the NL West — trumped their desire to pay him anything close to market value. Or maybe he just didn’t want to stick around as they retooled, having watched the team bid adieu to the likes of J.D. Martinez, Patrick Corbin, and A.J. Pollock while making just two commitments larger than $8.25 million: a five-year, $24 million extension for Ketel Marte, signed last March, and a three-year, $21 million deal for Eduardo Escobar this past October.

So the Diamondbacks dealt Goldschmidt to a team with a keen interest in extending him. “As you guys know, we’ve been fortunate over the years in making deals for players with one year left on their contract and retaining them,” said Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt Jr. in January. He meant Mark McGwire (acquired in July 1997), Jim Edmonds (March 2000), Scott Rolen (July 2002), and Matt Holliday (July 2009), some of whom actually had just months left on their contracts, but the point stands. Jason Heyward (November 2014) was the notable One That Got Away — and, from St. Louis’ standpoint, probably for the best, based upon the way his deal with the Cubs has turned out thus far.

While the Cardinals haven’t completely avoided making significant commitments to free agents in recent years, including Mike Leake’s five-year, $80 million deal in December 2015, and Dexter Fowler’s five-year, $82.5 million deal a year later, they had failed to land a top-tier impact player just as surely as they’ve failed to make the playoffs in each of the past three seasons. Last winter, they couldn’t convince the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton to waive his no-trade clause (though they successfully liberated his teammate, Marcell Ozuna) and this winter, they were bystanders during the free agencies of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

Instead, they opted for Goldschmidt, who’s five years older than either of the aforementioned pair, not to mention a lot less controversial, and of course, a lot less expensive. Indeed, with the way the free agent market has changed over the past two winters, Goldschmidt, entering the market after his age-31 season, might have been in for a harsh reception. In that span, just eight position players over the age of 30 have gotten deals longer than two years, and only two of those eight got more than $60 million in guaranteed money:

Over-30 Position Player Free Agents Since End of 2017
Winter Player Age Pos New Team Yrs $
2017-18 J.D. Martinez 30 RF Red Sox 5 $110 M
2017-18 Lorenzo Cain 32 CF Brewers 5 $80 M
2018-19 A.J. Pollock 31 CF Dodgers 5 $60 M
2017-18 Carlos Santana 32 1B Phillies 3 $60 M
2018-19 Andrew McCutchen 32 CF Phillies 3 $50 M
2017-18 Jay Bruce 30 RF Mets 3 $39 M
2017-18 Zack Cozart 32 3B Angels 3 $38 M
2018-19 Michael Brantley 31 LF Astros 2 $32 M
SOURCE: ESPN Free Agent Tracker
Age is as of June 30 in first season with new team.

It’s highly unlikely that Goldschmidt could have carried the momentum of Martinez, who bashed 45 homers in just 119 games for the Tigers and Diamondbacks while slugging .690, into free agency. And while his resumé may be fuller than that of Martinez or any of the other players above in terms of All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves (though McCutchen is a former MVP winner), it’s worth noting that only one player heading into his age-32 season got a deal longer than three years.

By that token alone, five years and $130 million — a contract that comes with full no-trade protection but no opt-outs — looks to be quite generous. Dollar-wise, the only position players of any age who have gotten more over the last two winters are Harper, Machado, and Eric Hosmer, who was just 28 when he signed his eight-year, $144 million deal with the Padres. That last one has an average annual value of just $18 million compared to Goldschmidt’s $26 million.

Running Goldschmidt’s numbers through our contract estimator with the same conservative parameters I used for Arenado ($8.0 million per WAR and just 3% average annual inflation, as opposed to $9 million or more, and 5%) results in the following:

Paul Goldschmidt’s Contract Estimate — 5 yr / $155.5 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Contract
2020 32 4.6 $8.24 M $37.9 M
2021 33 4.1 $8.49 M $34.8 M
2022 34 3.6 $8.74 M $31.5 M
2023 35 3.1 $9.0 M $27.9 M
2024 36 2.6 $9.0 M $23.4 M
Totals 18.0 $155.5 M


Value: $8M/WAR with 3.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-24), 0 WAR/yr (25-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

That’s a valuation about 20% beyond that of Goldschmidt’s actual extension, and it doesn’t even include his relatively underpaid 2019, in which he’s projected to produce 5.1 WAR and $40.8 million of value while being paid $14.5 million.

So that’s one estimate. Using an inherently more conservative projection of performance provided by Dan Szymborski via ZiPS requires more generous dollars-per-win and inflation assumptions to land in the ballpark, because $8 million for the former and 3% for the latter only takes the valuation to $101.4 million over those same five seasons. Here’s what $9 million per win (still well below Matt Swartz’s 2017 estimates) and 5% inflation — numbers that might raise some eyebrows given perceptions of how the free agent market has recently worked — looks like:

Paul Goldschmidt’s 2020-24 Via ZiPS
2020 .264 .371 .471 25 125 3.8 $9.45 M $35.9 M
2021 .261 .365 .446 21 118 3.0 $9.92 M $29.8 M
2022 .258 .357 .428 18 111 2.4 $10.42 M $25.0 M
2023 .253 .347 .407 15 103 1.7 $10.94 M $18.6 M
2024 .249 .336 .387 11 95 0.9 $11.49 M $10.3 M
Totals 11.8 $119.6 M

The big difference between the two estimates comes not just from the higher dollar figures but also the value of Goldschmidt’s baseline season and the pace at which he declines, assumptions that aren’t easy to make even when you’re not overlooking the season immediately at hand. A year from now, Goldschmidt’s deal might look like a bargain coming off a big year that suggests he’s got the staying power of the first estimate, or like an overpay if what we saw early in 2018 turns out to be the beginning of his slide. Even baking a fall-off along those lines into the projections, the Cardinals were willing to go beyond the more generous set of assumptions, just as the Rockies were with respect to Arenado.

As far as the Cardinals go, the ongoing presence of Goldschmidt may spur them to investigate the market for Jose Martinez, whom they just signed to a two-year, $3.25 million extension that runs through his first year of arbitration eligibility. The 30-year-old righty swinger, who made 84 starts at first base last year and another 42 in right field, can certainly hit (130 wRC+ in 915 PA), but he’s not much of a defender, and the team now has him, Fowler and Tyler O’Neill crowded into one corner, with Ozuna and Harrison Bader occupying the other two outfield spots. That said, Ozuna can be a free agent next winter, so perhaps the team takes the longer view of the logjam.

Even with Arenado and now Goldschmidt off the market, next winter’s free agent crop isn’t barren, though it won’t be as strong as it would with the pair. More extensions could be on the way but right now, Jose Abreu, Xander Bogaerts, Nicholas Castellanos, Khris Davis, Josh Donaldson, Didi Gregorius, Ozuna, Yasiel Puig and Anthony Rendon appear to be the major position players available, with Martinez joining them if he opts out. Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, and Justin Verlander head the pitchers’ list, with Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, and Stephen Strasburg among those holding opt-outs, with several other pitchers having club options.

All told, this reads like an old-school extension, with the Cardinals locking up a steady corner bat into his mid-30s rather than betting on a flashier and pricier combination of youth and athleticism. We’ll see if going against the grain helps restore their once seemingly perennial presence in the postseason.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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3 years ago

That feels pretty reasonable for both sides, which I wasn’t expecting after hearing that Goldy and Arizona couldn’t reach a deal. Maybe the no-trade clause or the length was a hangup, but it feels like was more about the Dbacks’ desire to strip it down than anything else. Even with the age difference I’d much rather have 6 years of Goldy at $145 million than the 7/$120 left of Hosmer’s contract, especially if you’re trying to win within the next couple years.