If slugging first baseman Paul Goldschmidt ends up playing only one season with the St. Louis Cardinals before leaving as a free agent, it’s unlikely his addition to the team will result in much more than the answer to a future trivia question.
One-and-done players have rarely led the Redbirds to the postseason promised land. In fact, it often takes players a season to settle into a new environment. They’ll hit something of a career pothole in their initial campaign, then rebound as the pressure to perform in front of a new audience dissipates.
While the St. Louis front office might be expecting a player in the walk year to put up big numbers in a bid for a new contract — either here or elsewhere — it doesn’t always work out that way. Besides, when you put all of your eggs in the single basket of one season, the chances the addition might be wiped out to an injury are always a consideration that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Most recently, the Redbirds traded for Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward who was in the walk year of his contract. It was supposed that Heyward would come to St. Louis, fall in love with the fan base and, like Mark McGwire in 1997, decide to ink an extension that would keep him in Cardinals red for the rest of his career.
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But it wasn’t to pass. Heyward did have a very good season by his standards — he hit a career-high ,293— but he really wasn’t a centerpiece hitter, slugging only 13 home runs and driving in just 60. But he turned up his nose at a considerable contract offer from the Birds to take a little bit less money to sign with the National League Central Division Chicago Cubs.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Heyward, forcing those first-year struggles to justify yourself in a new place, hit only .230 his first season with Chicago. Overall, he’s been a .256 hitter with the Wee Bears who has averaged only nine home runs in his three years there.
The Cubs reportedly are desperately trying to trade the outfielder who unsurprisingly passed on a chance to opt out of his contract, knowing he would never find another team to cough up close to the cash that’s currently clogging up Chicago’s payroll.
The most comparable trade acquisition to Goldschmidt I can recall in Cardinals history was the pickup of Andres Galarraga from the Montreal Expos prior to the 1992 season. The reason most baseball fans remember The Big Cat as a member of the Colorado Rockies as opposed to St. Louis is he got hit on the hand by a pitch early in his lone campaign with the Cardinals and missed most of the season. When he returned, Galarraga struggled to recover his prowess at the plate. He batted .243 and hit 10 homers with 39 runs driven in and the Birds let him walk.
Galarraga, just like Goldschmidt, was a 31-year-old slugging first baseman expected to be the big bat the team so desperately needed. But he became merely a footnote in St. Louis history when he became a one-year player here.
On the other side of the coin, the Redbirds have been fortunate to see several key acquisitions arrive in the last year of their contract only to sign on for a longer stay with the club. But the team blundered away ace pitcher Andy Benes and wasn’t able to keep the momentum going.
The most famous one was the previously mentioned McGwire who came to the Cardinals as a mid-season rental. I don’t think many people seriously believed Big Mac would stick around for more than a cameo. But he fell in love with the atmosphere at Busch Stadium, signed an extension and, although he didn’t lead St. Louis to the World Series, created an awful lot of excitement in his time wearing the Birds on the Bat.
As much as he personally helped the Birds, he attracted other players who would help make the team a destination franchise and really gave the Cardinals a new image.
St. Louis seemed like it had a team on the rise in the late 1990s after Jim Edmonds was a guy who was traded as he neared the end of team control by the then Anaheim Angels. He had a very nice inaugural season with the Cardinals after a lost year in his last go-round with his original club.
If Edmonds would have chosen to play out his contract and hit free agency, he might have made a mint. But he was loyal to St. Louis and ended up playing eight seasons at Busch Stadium with a .285 Cardinals average and a highlight reel of plays in centerfield. As much as any other player, Edmonds played a key role in helping the Birds turn the page from being a good team to a great one, participating in a historic streak of post-season play including the 2004 and 2005 World Series.
Some people want to believe that players are all replaceable parts. But factors like team chemistry, compatibility and continuity make a difference in trying to put together a consistent winner. When there is a revolving door of players, like what you see with the Oakland Athletics, it seems like teams are alright but never great.
They might get a wild card berth to the playoffs, but they rarely are a serious threat to win the big trophy.
I hope the Cardinals, if they don’t surprise us all and bring home Bryce Harper, manage to sign Goldschmidt to an extension — and Marcell Ozuna, too.