The only thing the Rockies have going for them as they trade Nolan Arenado, the franchise’s best player of the 2010s and its presumed best player of the 2020s, is that Cleveland traded Francisco Lindor last month, so Colorado’s deal isn’t the most depraved of the winter.
But unless you’re a Cardinals fan—in which case, congratulations on adding a superstar—it’s hard to find any other silver lining.
Just two years after signing Arenado to an eight-year, $260 million extension, the Rockies retreated and shipped him to St. Louis in exchange for swingman Austin Gomber and four lightly touted prospects. The Rockies are also reportedly sending the Cardinals about $50 million as part of the deal—meaning they’re paying big bucks to get rid of their best player.
How did MLB wind up in such a place that this kind of business is commonplace?
It’s difficult to overstate just how much production Arenado has given the Rockies, the only MLB team he’s ever known. Since 2014, his second year in the league, he ranks third among all position players in Baseball-Reference WAR, behind only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. (FanGraphs, which isn’t quite as high on his defense, places him ninth over that same period.) Fourth on that list, one spot behind the Cardinals’ new third baseman? Paul Goldschmidt, a fellow NL West star turned St. Louis infielder after an offseason trade from the Diamondbacks two winters ago.
On offense, Arenado provides a rare blend of contact ability and power. Most sluggers trade extra strikeouts for extra dingers—but not Arenado. More than 1,000 players in MLB history have recorded at least 3,000 plate appearances through their age-29 season. Arenado is just the 12th with such a high isolated power and such a low strikeout rate, relative to the league context. This list includes some of the greatest hitters ever:
- Ty Cobb
- Stan Musial
- Albert Pujols
- Tris Speaker
- Shoeless Joe Jackson
- Joe DiMaggio
- George Sisler
- Frank “Home Run” Baker
- Vladimir Guerrero
- Todd Helton
- Yogi Berra
- Nolan Arenado
And on defense, he’s even more superb. Arenado has won eight Gold Gloves in eight seasons, and in 2020, despite offensive woes, he was as stellar as ever at the hot corner. He led all MLB players in both DRS and UZR and tied for second in Outs Above Average.
The Cardinals, of course, care less about Arenado’s past accomplishments than what he will do in the future. There’s greater reason for concern here, after Arenado slumped to a .253/.303/.434 slash line in 2020, thanks to an early-season shoulder injury that sapped his power before eventually sending him to the injured list—his first trip in six years. Yet that underperformance came in only 48 games; Arenado’s had a slump that bad at some point in almost every season of his career. It’s just that in 2020, his entire season consisted of those 48 games, without any opportunity to compensate elsewhere on the schedule.
Concerns about Arenado’s bat translating outside hitter-friendly Coors Field are likely unfounded as well. There is no evidence that players perform worse after leaving Colorado (see, most recently, DJ LeMahieu in New York). Given the teams involved, Matt Holliday is the most direct comparison for Arenado, and he had a higher park-adjusted OPS in eight seasons in St. Louis than he did in six seasons in Colorado.
So it stands to reason that Arenado will boost the Cardinals’ defense—which led the majors in defensive runs saved last season—and offense, assuming his shoulder strength returns. The Cardinals hit the fewest home runs (51) of any team last season, and while that ranking stems in part from all their pandemic-induced seven-inning doubleheaders, they also pulled up the rear in isolated power on a per-plate-appearance basis. In a division with no clear favorite, Arenado may well provide the edge St. Louis needs to return to the postseason.
If that kind of player—a soon-to-be-30-year-old two-way star with an extensive track record—sounds like someone any team would want to keep at all costs, well, let’s try to figure out why Colorado would want to pay about $50 million to get rid of him.
It’s not because the Rockies are acquiring a bushel of top prospects in return. Reporter Jon Heyman noted that the 27-year-old Gomber is “considered the centerpiece” of the deal from the Rockies’ perspective; Gomber is also projected for a 4.52 ERA next season (before adding the Coors factor), and he’s walked half as many batters as he’s struck out in his short MLB career. He never made a top-100 prospects list.
There is no other way to say it, this return is incredibly light for a player who was an all-star, gold glove third baseman who finished in the top 8 in MVP balloting five straight years from 2015-2019.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) February 2, 2021
The current minor leaguers joining Colorado’s system aren’t particularly notable, either:
- Infielder Elehuris Montero (16th on FanGraphs’ end-of-2020 list of Cardinals prospects)
- Right-handed pitcher Tony Locey (18th)
- Infielder Mateo Gil (23rd)
- Right-handed pitcher Jake Sommers (unranked)
And it’s not because Arenado’s contract is particularly onerous. Arenado had six years and $199 million left on his deal—so, already losing about $50 million as part of the trade, Colorado is saying it wouldn’t want Arenado on a roughly six-year, $150 million deal now. Those are the same terms under which George Springer just signed in free agency, and Arenado is both younger and a more well-rounded player than the new Toronto outfielder. Incidentally, FanGraphs projects them both for the same 4.1 WAR in 2020—and that’s accounting for Arenado’s downturn at the plate last season.
Colorado also doesn’t have any other long-term commitments that would preclude it from paying Arenado for the duration of his deal. Charlie Blackmon and German Márquez (the latter on an incredibly club-friendly deal) are the only Rockies due any guaranteed money past 2022.
It’s essentially impossible to predict MLB teams’ fortunes more than a year or so in advance, but at this point, it’s also essentially impossible to see any path to contention for Colorado as currently constructed. The Rockies lack productive MLB players, ranking 29th in projected WAR for this season even before losing Arenado. They lack exciting prospects, with a farm system that ranks 28th according to MLB.com and 27th by Baseball America and FanGraphs. And they lack a proven player-development system, with the smallest analytics team of any ballclub.
They may now try to redistribute the money they’re saving from the Arenado trade to extend Trevor Story, if the star shortstop—who is set to reach free agency after this season—will even consider re-upping with such a woebegone franchise. But the Rockies just extended their best player—and now we see what happened so soon after, as they developed buyer’s remorse for no good reason.
#Rockies Trevor Story: Nolan’s one of my best friends, baseball aside, so this hurts. He’s the best 3B in the game. I’m sad and a little frustrated to be honest. All I can do is focus on playing the best baseball I can for my teammates and the fans, they deserve it.— Patrick Saunders (@psaundersdp) February 2, 2021
Just half a decade after Colorado executed essentially the same move with Troy Tulowitzki—albeit for a better prospect package—this is all the more shameful because of what it means for the club’s fans. The Rockies have been in the top 10 in annual attendance in the past three seasons attendance was allowed, and it wasn’t too long ago that their fans thought they might cheer for Arenado for the rest of his potentially Hall of Fame career.
“Part of me,” Arenado once said, “is like, ‘Hey, I want to be one of the best Rockies players of all time.’”
Then Arenado and Rockies GM Jeff Bridich began feuding over the front office’s direction, and the Rockies plummeted in the standings after back-to-back playoff berths in 2017 and 2018—including pushing the Dodgers to a divisional tiebreaker, the closest L.A. has come to losing the NL West in eight years. The relationship deteriorated so rapidly that Arenado waived his no-trade clause to join the Cardinals.
As an enticement for Arenado, the Cardinals added a few extra perks to his contract, including an extra opt-out clause and an extra year for $15 million at the back end. There is some possible downside for St. Louis in this deal, mainly if Arenado’s shoulder continues to bother him and limit his once-prodigious power. On the other end, if Arenado excels, he could opt out after either 2021 or 2022—but the Cardinals surrendered so little in the trade that they’d probably make out well even if they enjoy Arenado’s services for only a year or two. The club also has a lengthy history of trading for All-Star position players—Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Holliday, Goldschmidt—right before their free agency and retaining them long term.
In this case, the Cardinals benefit once again from an NL West club that doesn’t want to pay its best player. Even as Goldschmidt slumped in his first season in St. Louis, he rebounded in 2020 and leads Cardinals position players in WAR since arriving. But compared to Goldschmidt with the Diamondbacks, Arenado with the Rockies was supposed to be different. In the same offseason as the Goldschmidt trade, Colorado reaffirmed its commitment to a franchise leader—only to degrade that bond and trade him at the first opportunity, for a shockingly small return.
Two winters ago, it was Goldschmidt; last winter, Betts; this winter, Lindor and Arenado and Blake Snell and every Pirates veteran with an ounce of appeal to other teams. MLB is full of teams that don’t want to pay their best players. It’s a rotten trend for the sport. It’s acutely rotten for Rockies fans, who are now stuck cheering for a team with no present, no future, and no conviction at all.