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Goold: High Rollers? Cardinals putting their chips on 2019

Goold: High Rollers? Cardinals putting their chips on 2019

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Cardinals introduce Paul Goldschmidt

(Left to right) Bill DeWitt Jr., Paul Goldschmidt and John Mozeliak at the December 2018 press conference to introduce Goldschmidt as the Cardinals' new first baseman. (Post-Dispatch photo by Robert Cohen)

As the Cardinals hung Paul Goldschmidt’s No. 46 jersey with care, aware of the clatter his four Silver Slugger awards and .532 slugging percentage will bring nestled in their lineup, visions swirled about the zeroes and commas it will take to keep him there. Those weren’t the only numbers that mattered Friday at Busch Stadium.

One, spoken softly, stood out as an exclamation.

“Simply,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, “we realize the importance of 2019.”

The Cardinals’ front office rolls into Las Vegas on Sunday for the start of this year’s winter meetings already ahead. It acquired and introduced the middle-order hitter it’s coveted — and revealed an uncharacteristic emphasis on the coming season, on betting big for immediate returns. Goldschmidt, 31, joins Marcell Ozuna, Miles Mikolas and a handful of other Cardinals who can be free agents 12 months from now. The Cardinals advertised Goldschmidt as the marquee acquisition of winter, but they also recognize the free-agent market still offers a Bellagio Buffet of opportunities, from the staples they need (elite lefty relief) to the splurges still available (MVP-caliber players).

The power Goldschmidt has to change their offense, the short-term guarantee of his presence and the talent still on the market have greeted the move with a familiar tune.

Thank you, next.

“What I’m thinking about today is 2019,” Mozeliak said.

A year ago, at the winter meetings, he took umbrage with a reporter’s question about the team’s apparent short-term roster and insisted the Cardinals would always be governed by a long-range plan. What changed? He responded: “It wasn’t working. Got to do something different. You’re right, I’ve always been one for the bigger picture, the longer-term decision-making. But we’re trying to win now.”

At the meetings, which begin spinning Monday, the Cardinals will continue shopping for a lefthanded reliever/closer and a lefthanded-hitting utility infielder. No long winter’s nap here. In order to fill their needs and get him more playing time, the Cardinals will also listen to offers for outfielder Jose Martinez. They want to see if they could acquire either the lefty reliever or infielder via trade.

The Cardinals have remained engaged in talks about lefties Zach Britton and Andrew Miller, and in either case the Cardinals could dangle the ninth inning as theirs for the taking. A source said the Cardinals have had talks with Daniel Descalso’s agent about a possible reunion with the lefthanded-hitting utility fielder, and the Cardinals have not ruled out Derek Dietrich and his .775 OPS against righthanded pitchers as a possible fit.

Whether talking about Britton or Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi, who also intrigues the Cardinals, the front office will, like most teams, find a way into agent Scott Boras’ orbit.

Securing Goldschmidt on the eve of the winter meetings allows the Cardinals to take a seat as a spectator for the main attractions — Manny Machado and Boras’ “iconic” client and Vegas native Bryce Harper.

Goldschmidt’s $15.5 million salary — the Cardinals are paying the $1 million bonus he got as a result of the trade — does allow them payroll space to chase brand-name relievers and/or wade into the deeper waters, where the whoppers swim. As general manager Michael Girsch said, they’re not “limited in such a way that we can’t look at free agent(s).”

They have shown a willingness to spend in recent years — offers of $190 million or greater rejected by Jason Heyward and David Price — and last year they had an agreement in place to take on more than $250 million of Giancarlo Stanton’s contract via trade. He exercised veto power to strong-arm a trade to the Yankees.

Any fear or loathing from the Cardinals in this year’s market has as much to do with years as annual cost. They have avoided the 10-year commitments that sweep players into their middle or late 30s. A five-year extension for Goldschmidt into his late 30s is more palatable because it’s shorter. The Cardinals interest in Harper, according to a source, could hinge on if the length of contract he seeks shrinks from the reported 10 years in the coming days or weeks.

Either way, the Cardinals have positioned themselves to make a bid on Goldschmidt, Ozuna or a free agent that is greater than any contract they’ve signed since Matt Holliday’s seven-year, $120 million deal in January 2009. With increasing revenue, payroll space and three years absent from the playoffs driving this 2019 urgency, that invites the question: If not now, when?

One miss on the free-agent market still resonates.

Four years ago, St. Louis-area native and Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer hit the open market, and the Cardinals, leery of a long-term commitment to a righthanded power pitcher, “did not engage,” sources said. Scherzer signed a seven-year, $210 million deal with Washington. The Mizzou All-American hasn’t missed a start since, averaged 220 innings per season, and won two more Cy Young awards. The Cardinals now concede a big whiff.

“In retrospect, you’d have to say yes, because he’s outperformed his contract,” said Bill DeWitt III, team president. “I would admit that. How do you know who is going to miss and who is going to hit? Looking back, it’s pretty easy with 20/20 hindsight. The free-agent pool usually has great players, but everybody wants them. So they’re fully valued in the marketplace. It’s sort of buyer beware in some cases.”

The Cardinals have their share of those cases. Since Holliday’s deal, the Cardinals have signed three free agents from outside for deals worth at least $30 million: Brett Cecil (four years, $30.5 million), Mike Leake (five years, $80 million) and Dexter Fowler (five years, $85 million). A $190.5 million investment has yielded a combined 0.9 WAR (less than a win). The Cardinals are paying Leake to pitch for Seattle, and the two others have uncertain roles in 2019.

The Cardinals’ greater success has come from gambling on shorter deals and free-agent finds from outside the organization, like Mikolas, Kyle Lohse, Seunghwan Oh, Pat Neshek, Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran. Berkman, Neshek, Beltran and Mikolas were All-Stars in the first year of their deals — and not one made more in a single season than Greg Holland did on his one-year, $14 million to serve a few days as closer before Bud Norris and his one-year deal took over.

It’s middle market that’s flummoxed them.

Certainty has a high price tag.

Certainty and youth — like Harper offers at age 26 — can command a record price tag.

“First of all, age is critical,” DeWitt III said when asked what kind of player would prompt a $200 million or greater offer. “How old they are at the end of the contract is important, and you can project that somebody in their late 30s is going to be declining at that point. If they’re in their mid-30s, you can cross your fingers and assume the best.

“Another aspect of these big ones is the player needs to check a lot of boxes,” he continued. “Obviously, they need to be a great player. They need to have that age projection. They need to be super competitive. And they need to be somebody who fits the culture ideal for our club, appreciates the Cardinals and what they’re all about. ... If you’re putting that kind of money and that kind of commitment into a long period of time, that’s an aspect you’d like the player to have.”

That is an aspect the Cardinals have time to learn about Goldschmidt.

As talks with Arizona progressed during the past month, the Cardinals, as Girsch described, shifted the “weights” they internally place on long-term vs. short-term decisions. The team’s stockade of young pitchers, shortstop Paul DeJong and center fielder Harrison Bader influenced this decision because the Cardinals believe that group will fuel future contenders. The Cardinals’ prolonged absence from October and recognition it could take at least 95 wins to claim the NL Central added a thumb to the scales. Goldschmidt’s availability and past runner-up finishes for headliners gave the Cardinals the final push.

Mozeliak referred to him as “a unicorn.”

The ways the Cardinals are looking to improve, he added, are “more focused on how to get better now than worrying about 2020, 2021 and 2022.” There is something else about 2019 beyond the pressure felt to get back into the postseason — 2019 has an end. If the Cardinals’ lineup doesn’t have the success expected, they can walk away from it and go in another direction. If it muscles them back to the top of the division, they pick and choose offers to cement it, and head into next winter’s market looking to augment it. The possibility of third basemen Nolan Arenado, a known target, or Anthony Rendon reaching free agency is but a season away.

“I think the message is not that we’re emphasizing 2019 at the expense of all else,” Girsch said. “We’ve always had a long-term view, and perhaps tweaking (that) is what’s leading us. If we were focusing on 2019 exclusively, there is a lot more young talent that wouldn’t be here in 2019 that we could move. No one does that. We’re not going to. We’re not just going to throw everything at 2019.

“But relative to long-term vs. short-term views, that math changed.”

In summary: additions ahead.

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