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Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt hits a home run against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 31. (AP Photo)

ST. LOUIS • At various times already this offseason, Cardinals officials have described how they would like to land a middle-order hitter (again), that their focus is on corner infielders (easier fit), and that their past success has been trading for a player and then extending that player’s contract (Heyward excepted).

The Venn diagram of these wishes identifies an overlap – in the desert.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, as widely reported, are exploring offers for first baseman and perennial All-Star Paul Goldschmidt as he enters the final year of his contract. Middle order? Check. Corner infield? Check. Potential to acquire and extend? Oh, yes, yes, check. The Cardinals are one of the teams who have spoken with the Diamondbacks about their righthanded-hitting first baseman, sources have confirmed. It is, after all, a front office’s job to do so. Arizona has a hitter that interests the Cardinals, and the Cardinals have pitching/outfield prospects that interest the Diamondbacks.

With the exception of Seattle and its itchy-trader general manager, there has been little action in the market so far this winter, and that’s not unexpected, even as Cyber Monday arrived.

There are myriad reasons for this, and many of them are the same from previous years. Teams only just set their 40-man rosters to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft, and that is often the third step of winter, right after deciding on options and then determining qualifying offers. The next steps of the winter are tending contracts to arbitration-eligible players and the Rule 5 draft. It’s not unusual for the market to await the arrival of the next wave of free agents (the non-tenders) before really picking up pace.

Some other possible brakes on the market to this point that are different this year are the number of teams that spent October and November filling out coaching staffs or hiring front office members. And, also, the calendar. An early Thanksgiving meant two weeks, not just one, before the start of the winter meetings. Plenty of time for prelude.

CARDS PREFER TRADES

Last week, at the unveiling of the Cardinals’ new blue fauxback jerseys, team president Bill DeWitt III reiterated a stance the Cardinals have stated often in recent years. Their preference and their proficiency has been with trading for players, getting to know those players, wooing those players, and then signing those players. You can recite the examples by heart: Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Mark McGwire, Adam Wainwright, and Matt Holliday. The exception is Jason Heyward, who played a full playoff season with the Cardinals and declined a larger guarantee to seek a culture and a ring with the Chicago Cubs.

Turns out, his decision worked out for all parties.

Cubs got their ring.

Heyward got the ring and rich, rich contract.

The Cardinals aren’t on the hook for it.

Enter Goldschmidt.

The All-Star first baseman has one year remaining on his contract and he’ll be a free agent after the 2019 season. He is the classic trade-and-extend candidate the Cardinals seek. There are, however, some notes of warning. There are no guarantees that he’ll re-sign, and even if he does it will be the kind of contract the Cardinals have recently talked about avoiding – one where the “out years” (the later years on a contract) are in a player’s mid-to-late thirties. Adding Goldschmidt to the current roster would only increase the short-term nature of the Cardinals’ current roster.

Officials have rebuked the argument made here that they are in a shrinking window to win with this current group. The contracts tell the tale. If you include Goldschmidt, consider the list of players entering the final guaranteed year of their contract and the age at which they’ll play next season:

  • Michael Wacha, 27 (approx. $6.5 million)
  • Marcell Ozuna, 28 (approx. $13 million)
  • Paul Goldschmidt, 31 ($14.5 milllion)
  • Matt Carpenter, 33 ($14.75 million)
  • Miles Mikolas, 30 ($8 million)
  • Adam Wainwright, 37 ($2 million, plus)
  • Jedd Gyorko, 30 ($13 million)

That group includes two players with options for 2020 – Gyorko and Carpenter – and totaled 15.0 WAR for the Cardinals, not including Goldschmidt’s 5.4 WAR for Arizona. Two of those players are arbitration eligible for the coming season and do not yet have their salaries set, but use the above approximations and that’s nearly $72 million of salary commitment for 2019. Toss in Yadier Molina’s $20 million as he enters the final two years of his contract, and that’s a $92-million description of a short-term team.

John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of operations, used this fall’s post-season press conference to criticize short-term thinking and offer caution about long-term commitments.

The above team would be the opposite.

It could just invite a repeat of this winter’s shopping a year later, and a year later.

“When you talk about key names, these aren’t one-year solutions,” Mozeliak said, talking in general terms about high-dollar free agents. “These are sort of long-term bets. And when you think about it in those terms, I feel like a lot of times when you have these types of roundtables where we’re talking, everybody is solely focused on next season and how that’s going to impact the organization. But a lot of these types of opportunities are seven, eight, nine, 10 years down the road. That’s something that, when you sit in my seat, you have to be pragmatic and understand what that might look like.”

Goldschmidt has the short-term contract the Cardinals want to eventually avoid, the age that the Cardinals have talked about avoiding, and he’s not the lefthanded bat they have advertised as a preference. His production is exactly what they crave.

The former eighth-round pick has finished second in the MVP voting twice and has a run of four consecutive top-11 finishes. He finished sixth in the NL MVP voting for this past season. He curiously has won consecutive Silver Sluggers at first base in the NL ahead of Joey Votto. Goldschmidt is no homebody, either. He has slugged .529 in Arizona and .535 on the road, .933 OPS at home and .926 OPS on the road. And he absolutely pulverizes in the NL Central:

  • at Pittsburgh -- .286/.374/.473, .846 OPS, 22 games
  • at Cincinnati -- .278/.381/.567, .948 OPS, 23 games
  • at St. Louis -- .302/.402/.488, .890 OPS, 23 games

Wait, it gets better.

  • at Wrigley -- .337/.433/.578, 1.011 OPS, 22 games
  • at Milwaukee -- .420/.500/.807, 1.307 OPS, 23 games

The Cardinals lean heavily right with their lineup and their roster, and the team has spoken about trying to balance both with moves this winter. Goldschmidt doesn’t do that, obviously. The righthanded hitter slugs .512 with a .899 OPS against righthanded pitchers, and he rakes against lefties with a .591 slugging percentage and a 1.022 OPS in his career. The Cardinals will find a way to stomach the lack of a lefty with a torrent of production from the right side, of course.

And maybe it doesn’t matter as much as implied.

Consider the small example of the Cubs. The Cardinals’ rival, who they will face 19 times in the coming season, could have four lefties in their rotation. Four. Even in today’s game of hyper-specialized lineups and platoons in the postseason, that kind of rotation is going to invite a righthanded-heavy opposition. Goldschmidt provides. The Cubs’ four lefties would be Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana, and Mike Montgomery, and against that foursome, Goldschmidt is 12-for-33 (.364) with four home runs and nine strikeouts.

For the sake of comparison consider two other options on the market:

  • Josh Donaldson (RHB) – 11-for-38 (.289), 2 HR, 8 K
  • Bryce Harper (LHB) – 13-for-57 (.228), 1 HR, 18 K

Most of Harper’s troubles have come vs. Hamels, against whom he’s eight-for-35 with no homers and eight strikeouts. Lester has struck him out eight times in 15 at-bats. Goldschmidt is six-for-12 in his career vs. Lester and four-for-eight vs. Quintana with two homers. It’s one team. It’s small sample sizes galore. It remains a sliver of the calculus.

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This is the first entry in a trilogy of blogs that takes a plunge into the free-agent market as it gets ready to bubble back to life in the coming weeks. You can read about the Cardinals' search for the right lefty here and explore what's really behind some of the other hot stove headlines here

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Hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for the readers who swing by StlToday.com for our coverage, who subscribe to get all of it, and who humor me by taking these lengthy trips through stats and topics with me. Thank you.

Baseball’s feast is still thawing.

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