St. Louis Cardinals: Goldschmidt is the 3rd best first baseman in the NLC
By Matt Graves
Continuing our NL Central positional rankings, let’s analyze how St. Louis Cardinals’ first baseman, Paul Goldschmidt, stacks up against the rest of the first basemen of the division.
Yesterday, we ranked the catchers of the NL Central and found how Yadier Molina fit in with the rest of the catchers. While weighing Molina’s intangible benefits for the St. Louis Cardinals was difficult, this list might be more of a challenge.
The reason for this is because there are so many good ones in the division, and especially in the Cardinals’ case, we don’t know how much Paul Goldschmidt is going to bounce back in 2020.
Almost every team has a powerful bat at that position, so in most cases, we will be splitting hairs. So, without delay, let’s dig in.
5. Milwaukee Brewers
The Milwaukee Brewers quietly blew up then reassembled almost half their roster this offseason and in doing so, saved themselves a lot of money. One of their acquisitions was Justin Smoak, who signed a dirt-cheap $5M deal for 2020 with an option for next season.
Smoak certainly isn’t a bad player, but compared to the rest of the division, 5th place is the right spot for him. Coming off a year where he played in Toronto, Smoak put up 22 homers and a .748 OPS at the plate. He’s not a great average hitter (.208 in 2019), but his .342 OBP holds plenty of value. As a whole, Smoak was just slightly above average with a 101 wRC+ in 2019.
While Smoak holds his own with the bat, his defense drags down his overall value. In 2019, he had -7 Defensive Runs Saved and 2 Outs Above Average at first base. This all came together for just a 0.2 fWAR which is less than ideal from a first baseman.
4. Cincinnati Reds
Had this list been made even three years ago, the Reds would be at the top. Unfortunately, the age curve has continued to hit Joey Votto harder than most would’ve expected.
Now at the age of 36, Votto hit just for just a .768 OPS (buoyed by his .357 OBP) with just 15 homers. While a .357 OBP is still stellar, it’s well below the level that Votto is known for. Almost 70 points lower than his career .421 OBP, the age is showing on Votto. He was still 1% above average by wRC+, it’s just not the 151 wRC+ that he has put up on average over his career.
Defensively, Votto’s 10 DRS and 1 OAA tell us that he’s still good with the glove.
He may be a superstar at the end of his career, but his 2019 suggests he’s still got some gas left in the tank.
3. St. Louis Cardinals
If Paul Goldschmidt came into St. Louis and had the year we all expected him to have, he would’ve been one slot higher on this list. Unfortunately, 2019 didn’t go how he nor fans expected. If you isolate his second half, his wRC+ was 128, and he had an .886 OPS. That isn’t close to his career averages of a 141 wRC+ and .916 OPS.
On the year as a whole, his 116 wRC+ and .821 OPS was uncharacteristic and seemingly every publication expects him to bounce back in 2020, how much is the question. Of course, at 32-years-old, it’s unrealistic to expect his career numbers, but a season-long stretch like his second half of 2019 or slightly better is a reasonable goal for where we want him to be.
Defensively, Goldschmidt dropped off a little bit at first base, with a 0 DRS falling from the 11 and 14 DRS he had in the two years before 2018. By OAA, he was a +5 defender, and it’s no doubt that his defense raised the level of the entire infield as well.
It was a year of change for Goldschmidt in 2019, but ideally, in 2020 we see him jump his numbers back up to the offensive superstar range that made him one of the best players in the league.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
2019 was really Josh Bell‘s coming out party. Since his debut in 2016, most people knew he’d be great, but he had yet to explode at the plate. That is exactly what happened this year.
After three seasons with a 112, 108, 111 wRC+, Bell put up a whopping wRC+ of 135 in 2019. That is moving into elite offensive production and it’s sad that the Pirates seem to be moving in the wrong direction around him. Bell hit 37 homers and drove in 116 while getting on base at a .367 clip. His .936 OPS is the highest of anyone on this list, and at just the age of 27, he’s entering his prime.
Defensively, Bell isn’t good, his -8 DRS in 2019 was an improvement from the -13 DRS he had in 2018, but it still isn’t good. OAA agrees with this assessment as Bell had a -5 OAA at first base in 2019.
Bell has things to work on, but overall, he’s a true stud.
1. Chicago Cubs
Once again, it pains me to make this admission, but there’s no way to argue against it. Anthony Rizzo is the best first baseman in the NL Central. In 2019, he was basically career average Paul Goldschmidt.
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With a 141 wRC+ coming from a .293/.405/.520 slash line with 27 homers and 86 RBI, Rizzo proved he was still a dangerous bat after a couple of “down” seasons from his career norms. Rizzo was used predominantly as a three-hole hitter but spent some time batting cleanup and leadoff as well. He’s great no matter where he bats and the Cubs only have him under contract for this year with an option for next.
Rizzo is just about average defensively, with +2 DRS and -3 OAA, but his offense more than carries its own weight. He’s now 30 years old (even though it doesn’t seem like it), but he’s dangerous and has hurt the Cards many times. Without a doubt, he’s the best first baseman in the NL Central.
We all hope that Paul Goldschmidt will turn back into career-average Goldschmidt, but it likely won’t happen. Having the third-best first baseman on this list isn’t fair as the guys ahead of Goldy are both superstars. Let’s hope for a more equal race next season.