Arenado Escapes Colorado

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Let’s start with this: If you want to argue that baseball (and especially the economy of the game) is basically broken, I won’t fight you on it. The balance of the evidence favors that conclusion. However, in diametric opposition to takes that filled up my Twitter timeline last night, I will argue firmly that this trade does not add a datum to that argument, nor support it in any form. This is not a Baseball problem; this is a Rockies problem.

The thing that made people so mad about this trade was not that it happened, but that the Cardinals gave up virtually nothing to get it done, and that the Rockies even chipped in a quarter of the money owed to Nolan Arenado. Those have been telling indicators in recent money-driven deals, so the unease is understandable. The Cubs got far too little in return for Yu Darvish, because the market looked at his three remaining seasons of moderately expensive team control with irrational disfavor. The Red Sox traded Mookie Betts too eagerly, while sending along David Price and half the money they still owed him, to get under the competitive-balance tax threshold. Going back a few years, the Marlins dealt Giancarlo Stanton to New York for almost nothing, just to be shot of most of his contract. 

This situation is different. The Rockies’ lack of leverage didn’t have much to do with the money they still owed Arenado. Until Friday, he was due to make $199 million over the six seasons left on his deal. That’s a bit rich, and they’d certainly have had to pay it down somewhat in order to get a good return for him under other circumstances, but the fact that even trimming 25 percent off of that cost didn’t net them any of St. Louis’s top 10 prospects has very little to do with his salary.

Rather, the Rockies made their own, unique hash of things, and this was their comeuppance. By his own admission, Colorado GM Jeff Bridich ensured that the extension Arenado signed two years ago included an opt-out clause after 2021.

“I was the one who actually pushed for that opt-out,” Bridich said at a postmortem for the 2019 season, by which time the relationship between the star and the front office was already cooling quickly. “To Nolan’s credit, he didn’t have a ton of interest in that initially being in there. It wasn’t a priority of his for it to be in there. I was the one who thought it might be a good idea.”

Obviously, it was not a good idea. The very notion of a team executive pushing for the inclusion of an opt-out—which, as we’ve talked about before, essentially turns the years after the decision point in a deal into a multi-year player option—is baffling. Maybe, had Bridich never mentioned it, Arenado’s team would eventually have brought the negotiations around to that subject, but it’s clear that Bridich proactively sought to include the clause, which was the first step on the team’s road to ruin.

Next, the team made Arenado mad. They not only had a miserable 2019, but showed no real commitment to winning in the short or medium term, and it led to public fractures between Arenado and Bridich. At that point, a doomsday clock started ticking toward that opt-out clause, at the end of 2021. 

Now, just nine months before that clock will hit zero, the Rockies have no path to serious contention in the NL West. In fact, the continued success of the Dodgers and the aggressive progress of the Padres, plus the rising threat of the fast-rebuilding Giants, has put a return to the postseason even further out of reach. It will be several years and at least one front-office housecleaning before the Rockies can beat those three times, and at the moment, the Diamondbacks (while not much better on the field) are run much more intelligently, so I wouldn’t pick Colorado even over them. 

That left Colorado with no choice but to trade Arenado now. There was no chance Arenado would stick around beyond 2021 to suffer through what lies ahead of this team, even if opting out would ultimately have cost him several million dollars. There was no chance that the Rockies would let him leave for nothing, either. I can’t think of a trade in which the seller had so little leverage, and the buyer so much, including the ones mentioned above. Under these circumstances, the Rockies were locked in as the losers of the deal, and aborting the deal was not possible. The negotiations were just a sentencing hearing for Bridich and company.

On the other hand, Arenado himself makes out like gangbusters here. Let’s quickly review the contract he had in place, before this deal. He was due to make $199 million through 2026. For each of the next four seasons, he’s scheduled to earn $35 million, before his salary steps down to $32 million in 2025 and $27 million in 2026. He had a full no-trade clause, which he’s waiving to allow this deal to go through. He also had that opt-out clause, which effectively means that the final five years and $164 million of the deal were a player option for him. Under baseball’s current economic conditions, and hazarding a guess at what the new CBA might look like when it takes effect next winter, it was very likely that the earnings-maximizing choice would be to exercise that option and preserve the deal. Arenado didn’t want to do that, because of the Rockies’ rudderlessness, but it would have been the thing most likely to bring him the greatest financial benefit. 

This deal gets him out of that conundrum. That’s the primary benefit that accrues to him. He’s joining a team with a clear plan for short- and long-term competitiveness, whose front office (mostly) avoids alienating and offending its best players. He can afford to make the choice that earns him the most money, without making himself miserable in the process.

Since the Cardinals don’t want to pay him $35 million per year on the front end of the deal, though, Arenado has agreed to defer some of his earnings. We don’t know the terms of the deferrals yet, but it’s safe to assume that it takes the sting out of the nominal salary for St. Louis, even after the money the Rockies are sending them is exhausted. In exchange for that concession, Arenado gets a second opt-out, after 2022. That’s a huge secondary benefit he gains in this transaction, because at that point, we’ll all know the lay of the land for the next half-decade. A new CBA will be in place, the market will have stabilized in a post-COVID world, and Arenado will have two full seasons’ worth of information about his new team and its inner workings. He can make a much better-informed, less conflicted decision about his future after 2022 than he was likely to be able to make after this season.

The Cardinals got a lot in this deal, too, in addition to Arenado himself. The deferrals are one helpful thing. The money Colorado is including is another. Finally, the team and Arenado have agreed to tack a guaranteed salary of $15 million for 2027 onto the end of the deal. That helps compensate Arenado for waiving his no-trade clause and for accepting the deferrals, for sure, but it also helps St. Louis. 

Right now, the Cardinals aren’t inclined to spend aggressively enough to worry about the competitive-balance tax. That could change, though. It probably won’t change because the team makes a sudden decision to start shelling out 20 percent more in annual salaries, but once the dust settles on that new CBA, it’s possible that the luxury tax (or even a true salary cap) could come down to the range where they already feel comfortable spending. This restructuring not only minimizes St. Louis’s upfront costs, while they wait for vaccines and time to allow them to start stuffing Busch Stadium again, but protects them from eventually being hamstrung by Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt’s salaries. 

For competitive-balance tax purposes, money sent to one team by another to help cover the contract of a player can be subtracted from the total value of that contract, when calculating its annual average value. That average is the space the player takes up under the tax threshold, even if they’re paid wildly differently at various points in the deal. (Deferrals, when significant, can be used to tweak the value of the deal for those purposes, too, but let’s assume for the moment that Arenado’s deferrals won’t make a difference there.) Subtract the Rockies’ contributions, then, and add the seventh year at a salary roughly half the average of the rest of it, and the Cardinals are taking on Arenado for seven years and $164 million. That’s a perfectly palatable $23.4 million per year. Even if a salary cap comes into being, or the luxury tax thresholds come down, the Cardinals can carry Arenado at that salary, keep Goldschmidt on his expensive deal, extend Jack Flaherty and Dylan Carlson, and still have some flexibility for building depth around that core. 

If neither thing happens, then the extra year still keeps Arenado happy. If he ages pretty well, and barring further major disruptions to the finances of the game, Arenado would probably be pleased to earn $15 million for his age-36 season, and the Cardinals will probably not mind it, either. Plus, the added money turns the opt-out after this season into a decision about six years and $179 million, and the one after 2022 into a decision about five years and $144 million. Arenado gains some security, in the event that he does end up exercising his player option and preserving the deal both times.

Finally: let’s talk about just what the Cardinals are adding, in an immediate, on-field sense. Arenado is one of the five best third basemen in the league, at a time when third base is as deep as it has ever been. His numbers have been inflated by Coors Field throughout his career, but the hangover effect that drags down Rockies’ road performances has dragged him down some, too. He’s a brilliant fielder, bettered only by Oakland’s Matt Chapman. The Cardinals’ incumbent options at third base were scarcely above replacement, too, so Arenado’s addition should have maximal impact.

There are things I love about Arenado. He’s a joy to watch, especially in the field, with his extremely kinetic, fearless brand of third-base play. He will make strong throws from almost impossible positions, and rarely miss his mark with them. He will charge into the stands, or range far into the shortstop hole and dive, and he will come up with the ball with stunning regularity. At the plate, he’s not subtle. He launches himself at the ball. He swings often, and gets it in the air. Considering those principles, he maintains a high contact rate, because his hand-eye coordination is just that good. It’s fun.

That’s not to suggest that this acquisition is without risk, or that he doesn’t have weaknesses. He’s painfully slow-footed. He still turns in fine baserunning, but it’s more along the lines of knowing his limitations than wisely pressing the issue. In 2020, the only slower third basemen were Maikel Franco and Todd Frazier, according to Sprint Speed. I’m not a devotee of that stat, but Arenado’s figure there matches the eye test when he’s running. 

As long as he maintains the explosion that makes him so great afield, lead in his feet isn’t a huge deal. To have lost two steps before age 30 is a bit worrisome, though, not least because he’s also battled some injuries recently. Playing as hard as he does, things eventually happen, but since Arenado is unlikely to stop playing hard, that risk of lingering or new injury has to be baked into his outlook.

Then there’s his offense. As I said, he’s fun, because he can consistently swing for the fences, yet adjust and make contact when fooled or in a defensive count. Still, if he’s going to age well with the stick (especially outside of Coors), he’s going to have to make some adjustments. Curiously, for a guy with perennially impressive power numbers, he’s never been one to generate high-end exit velocities, either in terms of his maximum or in terms of consistently hitting it at least 95 miles per hour. Now that he’ll call one of the league’s least homer-friendly parks home, he might need to become more selective, swing more efficiently, and start making sure his best contact yields the results he’s looking for often enough.

Overall, my concerns about Arenado are mild. He’s going to be a good player for the next few years, given decent health. His DRC+ of 115 during pandemic ball doesn’t worry me; he was extremely consistent over the prior three seasons, at roughly 137. He slots nicely into the heart of the Cardinals’ batting order, alongside Goldschmidt.

Beyond those two, I do harbor some questions about St. Louis’s offense. Dylan Carlson should have the hiccups out of the way, and looked very good at the end of 2020, so pencil him in right in front of Arenado and Goldschmidt in the lineup. Still, that’s not a murderer’s row. Reports indicate that Yadier Molina will be back as the catcher, which helps their run-prevention projections in my estimation, but he’s starting to show his age at the plate. Tommy Edman and Matt Carpenter don’t form an especially intimidating potential tandem at second base. Paul DeJong had a rough year in 2020, and I’m much less certain that he’ll rebound than I am about Arenado. Dexter Fowler is aging. Harrison Bader is wildly inconsistent. I don’t trust Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, or Justin Williams to reliably round out the outfield. 

On the other hand, Arenado not only shores up the lineup, but should help the team turn batted balls into outs. If the Cardinals win the NL Central—and this move does make them narrow favorites, unless we find out that they’re giving up more than has been indicated so far—they’ll do so primarily as a pitching-and-defense outfit. Arenado and Goldschmidt are great, because they elevate the team defense, as well as being capable of carrying the heavy load the rest of the offense is likely to place on their shoulders.

I’ll break down the Rockies’ side of this more once we have clarity on all the players they’re getting, and on exactly how much they’re sending. For now, the top of this piece suffices, on that score. Nolan Arenado got a ton of value in this deal. The Cardinals were big winners, too. The Rockies are the big losers, but not because they claimed not to be able to afford Arenado, and not because baseball is broken. They made a series of terrible decisions, and got what they deserved. Arenado is now playing for a better team, in a bigger baseball market. This isn’t bad for baseball; it’s just bad for Jeff Bridich.

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