The phone call came while Turner Ward was at breakfast in Los Angeles, about to head to the ballpark as the Dodgers’ first-year hitting coach. The previous summer, in 2015, he had the same position with Arizona, climbing the ranks in the Diamondbacks’ system alongside one of his best pupils, Paul Goldschmidt. That’s who was on the phone, out of the blue.
Goldschmidt said he and his wife had a gift for him, and a condition.
“You can’t say ‘no,’” Goldschmidt told him, Ward recalled.
Delivered to his home later was a letter from Goldschmidt and a treasure, one that was a few rooms away Thursday as Ward described the call. Every day he’s home, Ward passes by the tall, shiny Silver Slugger Award trophy that Goldschmidt gave him after winning it in 2015. Beside it is a picture of him presenting Goldschmidt with his 2013 Silver Slugger trophy. Ward listed several feelings he had about the gift, from “surprise” to “humbled,” before settling on another precious metal to describe his former protégé.
“The St. Louis Cardinals got — well, I want to say a gem of a player, but really he’s a gold player, a gold person,” Ward said. “You always hear about the best players in the game and how they can inspire others around them, make them all better. That’s Paul. (As an opponent), you never wanted him up in a big situation. When the game is on the line, whether he came through or not, it’s the force of what he could do that has your attention.”
The Cardinals will introduce their new first baseman and annual MVP candidate Goldschmidt in a press conference Friday morning at Busch Stadium. The team will slip on a jersey — and begin the courtship to see if it and they are a longterm fit.
The Cardinals acquired Goldschmidt, a six-time All-Star, in a four-player trade Wednesday afternoon that sent pitcher Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly, minor-leaguer Andy Young and a 2019 draft pick to the Diamondbacks. Goldschmidt, 31, immediately amplifies a lineup that had been questing for that “force” in the middle. He arrives with one season remaining on his contract, but all of the trappings of a player the Cardinals will seek to extend as they did with Matt Holliday most recently. The Cardinals did not seek an opportunity to negotiate an extension with Goldschmidt before Wednesday’s trade, though sources described Thursday how they have a feel for what an extension could look like. Jose Altuve’s seven-year, $163.5-million extension with Houston offers a hint with the understanding Goldschmidt will be older at the end of the deal.
A shorter, five-year extension in the neighborhood of $150 million would fit the marketplace. The Cardinals intend to take their cues from Goldschmidt so that he can get comfortable and familiar with the organization and both sides can determine if this is the commitment they’re ready to make. A handful of Goldschmidt’s peers interviewed the past few days volunteered how they already see the match.
“He’s honestly the perfect Cardinal,” said former Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay, who was Goldschmidt’s teammate in Arizona this past summer.
In four of the past five seasons, the Cardinals have had subpar performance from first base, a power position. As recently as 2015, that year Goldschmidt won the Silver Slugger at first base and gave it to Ward, the Cardinals’ production at the position ranked 28th in OPS (.702) and 29th in slugging (.392). The Cardinals haven’t had a hitter at any position provide 25 homers, 90 RBIs and a .900 or greater OPS since Lance Berkman and Albert Pujols both did in 2011. In the past six seasons, Goldschmidt averages 29 homers, 98 RBIs and a .934 OPS.
The first time the Cardinals received better-than-average production at first base since 2013 was this past summer when Matt Carpenter’s .897 OPS as a first basemen ranked second at the position in the majors.
Goldschmidt’s .922 ranked first.
The presence of Goldschmidt gives the Cardinals a monster at first in a division that has been defined by production at that position and by a recent run of MVPs. Seven of the past 11 National League MVPs have come from the NL Central and four of those winners remain in the division: Christian Yelich (2018), Kris Bryant (2016), Ryan Braun (2011), and Joey Votto (2010). In Goldschmidt’s six seasons as a regular in the majors, his .934 OPS ranks behind only Votto’s .957 among first basemen, and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo ranks fifth, at .864. Rizzo ranks fifth in slugging, too, at .493, behind Votto, whose .516 slugging is second among first basemen since 2012.
Goldschmidt’s .534 ranks first.
“It was a great division before that trade and even better now,” Cubs president Theo Epstein told reporters in Chicago on Thursday. “Not having made the playoffs three years in a row and having that kind of depth of younger talent — we expected (the Cardinals) to make another consolidation-type move for another great player, and they certainly got a truly elite player in Paul Goldschmidt.”
Cardinals officials, manager, and ownership have reserved comment on the trade until Friday’s press conference.
Ward, who was recently hired as Cincinnati’s hitting coach , has an idea of the impression Goldschmidt will make. He’s seen it since he was the Gold Glove-winner’s manager at Class AA.
“There were some naysayers out there that wondered if he could adapt to big-league pitching, but that was never, never, ever a question for me,” Ward said. “He’s strong mentally, he looks for adjustments, he adapts, and I’ve never had a player that was as good as him already come to me and say, ‘What do I need to do better?’ That is the best question a coach can ever hear.”
With Goldschmidt in place as the answer to the Cardinals’ big-bat hunt, the team is not yet done shopping as next week’s winter meetings in Las Vegas arrive. Goldschmidt’s $14.5-million salary for 2019 gives the Cardinals continued flexibility to pursue an elite lefthanded reliever and a lefthanded hitter for the bench. The Cardinals are also expected to meet with former MVP Bryce Harper’s agent next week in Vegas, and they will remain aware of his market and the length of contract he’s chasing. They are better positioned now with the bat they craved already signed. The Cardinals also cleared a spot on the 40-man roster with the Goldschmidt trade that streamlines an addition — or allows them to participate in next week’s Rule 5 draft for unprotected minor-league players.
The Goldschmidt deal does not hamstring the Cardinals’ other pursuits while, as one NL scout said Thursday, he adds “an impact bat … (and) instantly makes both the offense and the infield defense better.”
“It just reinforces that the NL Central is to be earned and we have our work cut out for us,” Epstein told reporters in Chicago, “and that’s how it should be.”