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Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt swings away in Tuesday's game against the during the Washington Nationals at West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Maybe Nolan Arenado did the Cardinals a favor.

Yes, the daydream of watching baseball’s best third baseman making magic beneath The Arch has disappeared, fading into the air like one of those special Colorado clouds that float from Coors Field. Arenado is a Rockie through at least the 2026 season — unless he exercises his opt-out, or agrees to be traded.

And that seems unlikely, considering his eight-year extension worth $260 million has the four-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner telling folks he wants to wear black and purple forever. But maybe Arenado could go down in the Redbirds’ record book as providing one unofficial assist.

Let me explain.

No Arenado in next season’s free-agent market spares the heartbreak of Cardinals fans who would have gotten their hopes up that the front office would sign the best free agent available.

The Cardinals did not do this with Albert Pujols, the superstar they developed and adored, and yet we keep wondering if they will do it for a player they did not groom.

By pursuing neither Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado, the Cardinals proved it’s not really about the age, either. It’s about their fear of putting too many eggs in one basket, and the history that suggests that fear is financially sound.

No Arenado in next season’s free-agent market also means the Cardinals must extend Paul Goldschmidt beyond his one-and-done season.

Unless Goldschmidt is entirely unreasonable, the Cardinals can’t take no for an answer now. The Cardinals want to extend him. They would not have traded for him if they didn’t.

Goldschmidt is playing his cards close, for now, but the extension talks that will eventually come can no longer occur with the notion of the Cardinals pivoting to Arenado if talks stall. If the Cardinals are not going to chase the Harpers and Machados of the world, they must convince the Goldschmidts to stay. It appears to be their only realistic shot at having elite players they do not develop.

And then there is the big one.

No Arenado in next season’s free-agent market forces pending free agents, like Goldschmidt, to think long and hard about accepting a generous extension before entering a free-agency gauntlet that has never been more stacked against players who are on the wrong side of age 30. Arenado’s extension means Goldschmidt is likely the best position player in his free-agent class. He was already going to be a fascinating case study because his massive list of accomplishments and remarkable durability will be weighed against his pause-worthy age.

A 27-year-old Arenado wanted no piece of free agency. Goldschmidt would dive into the uneasy waters at age 32.

Add it all up, and it means the Cardinals and their new starting first baseman should both be seeing the advantages of a one-year date becoming a multi-season marriage. And Arenado’s agreement could be used as a blueprint.

Arenado’s average salary of $32.5 million is the highest point (yet) for a position player. He agreed to accept more money over fewer years, compared to the decade-long deal waited out by Machado, and the 13-year commitment achieved by Harper.

Because of his age and his impeccable two-way talent, Arenado was one of the few players who could have entered the current state of free agency with a good chance of making even more money than he just received. Yet, he passed.

At least part of his decision traced to the grueling free agencies weathered by Harper and Machado. Both waited, waited, waited, then won. But neither appeared to get their first pick of landing spots. Harper’s circus ended after more than 100 days that left fans in Philadelphia cursing him for taking so long. He got three more years and $30 million more than the Nationals once offered, though he settled for a smaller annual average. Worth it, to him. Not to all.

“Obviously it sits in your head,” Arenado told reporters when asked how the hard market factored into his decision to accept the extension.

Players will push to reclaim leverage in free agency while working on the new collective bargaining agreement that will, hopefully, restore peace between owners and players after the 2021 season. That timeline is too long to help 31-year-old Dallas Keuchel, 30-year-old Craig Kimbrel and other headliners on the wrong side of the 30-year-old wall that has popped up as the use of analytics has replaced the use of steroids.

Goldschmidt never has been a free agent. He probably surrendered millions by accepting a team-friendly deal in Arizona, which later traded him. There should be no assumption he’s willing to take any sort of extension discount. He is one of the best all-around players in the National League. He’s also in his age-31 season. He would represent a fascinating test case for free agency, if he gets there. The Cardinals should not let him.

Post-Dispatch colleague Derrick Goold has reported five years and $150 million could be a template that leads to serious talks. It’s not all that different from the deal Arenado just accepted, once you factor in the age difference and length of commitment. If the Cardinals are convinced Goldschmidt is going to be an outlier in terms of age, paying him $30 million per season, or even more if necessary, is good business. Pour on the money. Scale back the years. That’s the move here.

Goldschmidt should enter conversations with the Cardinals knowing another corner infielder they loved to watch from afar has exited the realm of possibility. He should also understand why Arenado removed himself from the free-agent pool before he ever entered.

The Cardinals have never needed Goldschmidt more than they do right now. They should make an offer that reflects that. Offer him what free agency might not, because there’s no longer a guarantee it will treat him better.


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