Paul Goldschmidt Trade Underscores MLB’s Depressing Boom-and-Bust Culture

Another day, another fringe contender giving up. On Wednesday, it was the Diamondbacks who followed the path already set out by the Mariners this offseason in punting on 2019, trading Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals for a trio of prospects. Arizona—the NL wild-card game winner in ‘17 and last season’s NL West leader going into September before a brutal collapse—had already lost A.J. Pollock and Patrick Corbin to free agency this winter. Now with Goldschmidt dealt, the core of those squads is more or less gone, as is any chance at the postseason.

The Diamondbacks’ focus has swung from 2019 to ’21 or ’22 and beyond, led by the players acquired for Goldschmidt and the team’s wave of draft picks this summer—potentially as many as seven in the first 75 selections. In the interim will be a lot of bad, boring and depressing baseball, as Arizona cycles through cheap replacements and tries to develop its next crop of talent.

That’s already disappointing enough for fans in the desert, made all the worse by the loss of Goldschmidt, the best hitter in team history and the face of the franchise. Like the Pirates trading away Andrew McCutchen last winter, it’s a kick in the teeth for those who came of age watching Goldschmidt turn into a star, albeit one who most folks outside of Arizona would have trouble picking out of a police lineup of two. Goldschimdt is a ferociously talented hitter who’s universally regarded as one of the game’s nicest people and most dedicated players. It’s a shame Diamondbacks fans won’t get to see him finish his career in Arizona’s insanely garish threads—and galling that the team couldn’t or wouldn’t build a consistent contender around this massive gift it’d been given.

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But that’s baseball, where guys like McCutchen and Goldschmidt are gone the second the cost control runs out. This is the common lament of the small-market team, cursed to lose its stars to free agency or trade them before they get there and leave. In that light, moving Goldschmidt, who will be a free agent next winter, was a foregone conclusion for Arizona. It was never going to commit major money to a player who will turn 32 in September, no matter how many kids across Phoenix have a poster of him tacked to their walls. The business is a bummer, and inescapable.

That last part is true, though, only insofar as you accept that the billionaires who own these teams have financial limits. The owner of the Diamondbacks, Ken Kendrick, bought the franchise in 2004 for $238 million. Last April, Forbes valued the team at $1.2 billion. That number is theoretical, but owning the Diamondbacks has made Kendrick insanely wealthy. And while his net worth is nowhere to be found on the internet, he’s rich enough that, in 2007, he bought a rare Honus Wagner baseball card for $2.8 million. Kendrick, like every other owner, doesn’t lack for income.

Yet away goes Goldschmidt as the Diamondbacks cut costs, just like the Mariners, who’ve dumped Robinson Cano, James Paxton, Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz, Nelson Cruz and Mike Zunino and will save tens of millions of dollars going forward as they bottom out. They sell it as rebuilding with an eye toward the future, and that there was no way for the team as currently constructed to compete with the game’s elite—the 108-win Red Sox, fresh off a World Series win, or, in Arizona’s own backyard, the Dodgers, with their six consecutive division titles and back-to-back NL pennants and limitless payroll. In the face of that, the only sensible move is to pivot toward a teardown and try again another day.

What this ignores, though, is that, as more and more teams succumb to the siren song of rebuilding, it becomes easier and easier for the elites to maintain their power. If you’re a contending team, it has never been cheaper to acquire talent, either via free agency or trade, because of how few teams are trying to win. By his contract status, Goldschmidt is a rental, and rentals will always return less than stars under long-term contracts. But focus on the fact that an MVP-caliber bat was dealt for three players, the best of whom is Luke Weaver, a 25-year-old pitcher whose career major league ERA currently sits at 4.79. The second-best piece is Carson Kelly, a 24-year-old catcher whose career OPS+ across 117 big-league plate appearances is 13. That’s not entirely fair to either Weaver or Kelly, who are good young players with lots of upside. But even with Goldschmidt’s impending free agency factored in, it still feels like an unfair exchange of talent.

It all comes back to that cost control. Weaver and Kelly will come nowhere close to replacing Goldschmidt’s production in 2019, but they will be around in ’20 and beyond—and most importantly, they’ll be there on the cheap. Paying virtually nothing for talent is the dream of every front office, and that’s what the Diamondbacks will do with their Goldschmidt return. It’s reminiscent of the Gerrit Cole trade last winter, in which Pittsburgh dealt its ace for four players—not one a star prospect, but all of them ready to provide multiple years of below-market production.

That’s not a particularly fun baseball ecosystem, though. Teams, believing themselves unable to compete, tank to save costs. The stars they trade, though, return less and less, as the contenders have fewer teams to compete against and no incentive to get much better. Tanking teams accept larger packages of lesser players, making the rebuild even harder to accomplish, while contenders pay half price for stars both in trades and free agency and remain at the top of the league without having to try all that hard. The poor stay poor; the rich get richer; and spending goes down around the game.

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Cost efficiency has been one of the driving principles of the stats revolution. The more advanced the numbers become, the easier it is to quantify every single thing a player does or doesn’t do—and, by extension, the easier it becomes to price all those contributions to the last cent. The game is smarter than ever, and as such, it’s more oriented on the bottom line than ever. Why spend a lot to win or give up prospects for stars when you can expend fewer resources if you’re fanatical about squeezing every ounce of production out of young players on pre-arbitration salaries?

This ruthless accounting is how trades like Goldschmidt’s happen—not only how a team discards its franchise centerpiece the moment things are about to get expensive, but also how a trio of flawed yet cheap prospects ends up being his return.  And it’s how we’ve ended up with this hugely stratified state of the league: one with lots of basement-dwellers, a few elites, and no middle class. You can’t win without homegrown stars, but once those stars get expensive, they’re gone. What these rebuilding teams have done is put themselves into boom-and-bust cycles, only ever competing within the narrow range of a roster’s least expensive years. The goal of vying for a World Series title every year has given way toward a kind of indefinite cost-neutral existence, always biding time. And with those fringe contenders gone, the league becomes wildly top heavy; a championship is realistic only for a select few, who bolster themselves by using tanking teams as player ATMs.

Sometimes rebuilds are inevitable, and sometimes they’re the only way out of a mess. But a world full of rebuilds is one without regular-season drama or preseason hope—and one where stars like Goldschmidt only get the smallest of chances to make something special happen for their teams’ fans before that dream is gone.

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