Anybody who has read me over the last several years knows that I am a Nolan Arenado cynic, to the point where if I wrote about the events of last night and didn’t mention my preconceived biases against Nolan Arenado, it would seem vaguely unethical, error by omission so grand that I was trying to re-write history. So I’m going to lead off with that. My criticisms of Nolan Arenado have occasionally veered into admittedly nonsensical ad hominem attacks on, say, the fact that he has a bad mustache (which he does, but, like, I’m also a massive stan for Vladimir Tarasenko despite his lousy playoff beard attempts with the St. Louis Blues). But the bulk of my criticisms of Arenado, I think, are valid.
I have long believed that Nolan Arenado was the most overrated player in baseball, and that his numbers backed up my belief. Arenado is often hailed as the heir apparent to Brooks Robinson at third base–he has, after all, won a Gold Glove every year of his career–but he ranks a somewhat nondescript 35th in Defensive Runs Above Average among third basemen before the age of 30 (he will turn 30 early this season). In terms of modern Cardinals players, he isn’t Scott Rolen. He isn’t even Terry Pendleton. He isn’t even Placido Polanco!
Offensively, Arenado hit 199 home runs over a five-year stretch from 2015 to 2019, but he did so while playing at Coors Field, the greatest offensive inflator in modern baseball history. Home/road splits suggested that Arenado was merely above-average but unexceptional playing elsewhere–his career non-Coors OPS is under .800, by a small enough amount that you could envision his OPS rising above that mark if he still got to play some games at Coors, but not enough to put him in the Mike Trout tier of offensive stars. By wRC+, an extremely useful number when evaluating Colorado Rockies players against those who aren’t playing half of their games on the Moon, he ranks tied for 49th since his debut among players with 2,000 or more plate appearances.
One of the players with whom Arenado is tied by wRC+, Joc Pederson, signed yesterday with the Chicago Cubs for one year and $7 million. Nolan Arenado has six years and $199 million remaining on his contract, and he holds a player-initiated opt-out. Pederson is coming off a down offensive season, where his wRC+ was just 88, but Arenado’s was even worse, at an uncharacterisic mark of 76.
To be clear, Arenado is absolutely the superior player–he’s a far better fielder and has a fairly normal lefty/righty split that, unlike Pederson, doesn’t make him borderline unplayable while facing pitchers of the same handedness as him. But Arenado’s contract has for years been a relevant consideration in discussions to trade for him. The eight-year, $260 million contract he signed prior to the 2019 season is, more or less, a fair market contract for Nolan Arenado. Which always begged my most persistent question on the matter–if you want to acquire a Nolan Arenado, why not just sign one in free agency?
An obvious recent example was Giancarlo Stanton, a player who refused to waive his no-trade clause to come to St. Louis because he had all of the leverage in the world and was only willing to play for a team who had played in the previous year’s LCS (this sort of turned him into a Kevin Durant figure in Major League Baseball, but I always thought this was extremely cool–use what power you have, because God knows that if he didn’t have that no-trade protection, the Miami Marlins were going to give no mind whatsoever to how he felt about being traded). Giancarlo Stanton was coming off a career-best season, but because he was signed to the largest contract in history, the return for him was relatively minor–Starlin Castro, a good player who was mostly a salary off-set, and a couple of low-level minor leaguers. And in the Nolan Arenado trade rumor cycles, the price was always quite a bit steeper than this. Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, or Matthew Liberatore would be semi-casually thrown in as the cost of doing business–there was even a brief window where Jack Flaherty was mentioned.
And in the end, it appears that the Nolan Arenado trade will follow the pattern of the Giancarlo Stanton one.
The dust hasn’t entirely settled, but it appears the St. Louis Cardinals will acquire Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies for several low-to-mid tier prospects–names mentioned have been Austin Gomber, Jake Woodford, Jhon Torres, and Luken Baker. These are fine prospects, but these are not Dylan Carlson-level prospects. Additionally, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic has reported that upwards of $50 million will go from the Rockies to the Cardinals to help off-set some of Arenado’s salary.
Some of the finer details have not yet been finalized–I assume, for instance, that the $50 million is contingent on Arenado not opting out of his contract, or else the Rockies would be paying the Cardinals to have Nolan Arenado, at which point the Rockies would literally be better off releasing Arenado (the Rockies are “sign Ian Desmond to play in the outfield” dumb, but I don’t think they’re that dumb). Arenado is being given another year on the back end of his contract, guaranteed for $15 million (which seems like a bargain, but keep in mind this would be his age-36 season), and unsurprisingly, his no-trade clause that he will have to waive in order to initiate this trade will be restored.
But think of the trade this way–the Cardinals essentially signed Nolan Arenado to a seven-year, $164 million (his remaining $199 million over six years, plus $15 million for 2027, less $50 million from the Rockies) contract. Arenado has an opt-out, but if he exercises it, that’s probably a good thing for the Cardinals, because it means he was really good for them. And in exchange, the Cardinals lose out on Austin Gomber, a player whose utility to the Cardinals had substantially decreased the day before with the signing of Adam Wainwright.
Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays signed George Springer to a six-year, $150 million contract. Springer gets the higher effective AAV, but Arenado gets more total dollars, and $14 million extra for a decidedly post-prime year is generally a pretty good thing to have for a player. I’ll call it a push. Like Nolan Arenado, George Springer is a really good if not quite elite player. Like Nolan Arenado, the outfielder fills a position of need and could be justified as a splashy, exciting acquisition. And like Nolan Arenado, the George Springer signing could backfire for the Blue Jays, but in the moment, it seems fine.
I’ve seen this move referred to as a swindle, and in the sense that the Colorado Rockies giving up their most popular player for almost nothing, it is on their end. This is still a move that could backfire for the Cardinals–it wasn’t too long ago that the Paul Goldschmidt trade was universally praised (almost), and then he had a lackluster season while the players the Cardinals sent to Arizona played well. But this wasn’t the scenario I spent years fearing–mortgaging the future for an albatross. The worst case scenario is that Nolan Arenado doesn’t bounce back from the injury that suppressed his offensive production last season, in which case the Cardinals pay a little more per year for Nolan Arenado than they are currently paying for seemingly washed Matt Carpenter–it’s not a good thing for the team, but it doesn’t preclude them from acquiring the future equivalent of Nolan Arenado. And they will still have Nolan Gorman as a potential long-term alternative.
Every move has risk, but the Cardinals kept theirs reasonable in acquiring a player who makes them favorites in the National League Central.