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Adding Paul Goldschmidt vaults Cardinals back in the NL Central hunt

Adding Paul Goldschmidt vaults Cardinals back in the NL Central hunt
St. Louis first baseman Paul Goldschmidt keeps his eye on a popup during a spring training game against the New York Mets on Feb. 28. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

One day during the 2018 season, after another empty at-bat against Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez, Paul Goldschmidt decided to investigate whether the data matched his intuition.

He insisted he does not spend much time pondering his statistics — six All-Star appearances and four Silver Slugger awards at first base during his eight seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks have a way of boosting a man’s confidence — but he was curious about his results against Baez. The numbers were stark, assembled across four seasons of encounters: One hit and a .048 batting average.

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“He owns me,” Goldschmidt said. “That may be a strong word. But he’s dominated me.”

Goldschmidt burst into a smile when asked about Baez this spring. He was standing in the clubhouse of the St. Louis Cardinals, a few weeks into his first spring in the Grapefruit League. It is possible that Baez was the only pitcher on the Dodgers, or perhaps the only pitcher in the National League West, who was unhappy to see Goldschmidt leave the division.

The trade of Goldschmidt to the Cardinals represented a scaling back in the ambitions of the Diamondbacks, who nipped at the heels of the Dodgers but hadn’t won the division since Goldschmidt’s rookie season in 2011. It also demonstrated the zeal of the Cardinals to return to the postseason after three years without October baseball.

St. Louis won 88 games last season, but still finished in third place in the NL Central behind the 96 victories of the Milwaukee Brewers and the 95 of the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers added former Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal and retained infielder Mike Moustakas, but otherwise avoided major upgrades. The Cubs effectively stood pat, betting on bounce-back performances from former NL most valuable player Kris Bryant, starting pitcher Yu Darvish and closer Brandon Morrow.

The Cardinals opted for an aggressive approach. The team declined to wade into the free-agent waters with outfielder Bryce Harper or infielder Manny Machado. Instead, they built a package of prospects — pitcher Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly and infielder Andy Young — that convinced Arizona to part with Goldschmidt in early December.

The NL Central should rival the NL East as baseball’s most competitive division. The Cincinnati Reds also loaded up for 2019 by acquiring former Dodgers Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and Matt Kemp, plus former New York Yankees pitcher Sonny Gray. The projection system for Baseball Prospectus predicts the Cardinals to finish in second place behind Milwaukee; FanGraphs projects the Cardinals to finish second behind the Cubs.

Goldschmidt, 31, provides ballast for a lineup that already featured three-time All-Star infielder Matt Carpenter and a collection of useful contributors such as shortstop Paul DeJong and third baseman Jedd Gyorko. With the Cardinals betting on positive regression from outfielders Dexter Fowler and Marcel Ozuna, Goldschmidt offers certainty.

“It gives us everything, as far as giving us a middle-of-the-order presence and extending our lineup,” Carpenter said. “Not just offensively, but also what he does as a defender, too, for our infield. He’s a huge piece for us.”

The consistency of Goldschmidt is enviable. Across the last six years, his on-base-plus-slugging percentage has never dipped below .899 in a season. He appeared in 630 of Arizona’s 648 games during the last four seasons. Since 2016, he ranks eighth in the majors in OPS (.929) and runs batted in (298), and 11th in FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (15.3).

His production likely will net him a nine-figure contract as he approaches free agency after the season. The Cardinals are expected to engage Goldschmidt in extension talks as he grows comfortable in St. Louis.

The trade jolted Goldschmidt from a comfortable position in Arizona. He had spent his career with the Diamondbacks, spending every spring training near his home in the area. Soon after joining the Cardinals, Goldschmidt found a rental property for the spring in Jupiter and a home for the season in St. Louis. He wanted no distractions once he arrived at his new camp.

“Once you get on the field, it’s baseball,” Goldschmidt said. “You run your bunt plays. You take your BP. You take your grounders. I’m excited to learn from the guys here. I feel like I’ve already learned a ton in the first couple weeks.”

Goldschmidt took infield positioning tips from long-time instructor Jose Oquendo and picked the brain of new hitting coach Jeff Albert. But he will be mostly on his own against Baez. Fowler, who has three hits in three at-bats against Baez, is the only Cardinal with multiple knocks against Goldschmidt’s nemesis.

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Unlike the last few years, Goldschmidt will face Baez and the Dodgers only six times during the regular season. And perhaps in October.

“You kind of have that mind-set like, ‘All right, I’m going to get him,’ ” Goldschmidt said. “It hasn’t happened. But maybe it’ll happen this year.”

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