Major League Baseball trades are rarely swindles. Even for the ones that, in hindsight, seem lopsided beyond comprehension, the people that make the trades are generally, if not prophets, reasonable people with the best interests of their teams in mind. The trade that sent Fernando Tatis Jr. (and marginal pitcher Erik Johnson) to the San Diego Padres with the Chicago White Sox acquiring overpaid, generally washed starting pitcher James Shields (and cash, to make him a little bit less overpaid) seems like malpractice, and obviously the execution of the trade was horrible from the White Sox perspective, but despite being the son of a decent Major League player, Tatis Jr. was widely considered a relatively inconsequential prospect. One of the more lopsided St. Louis Cardinals trades of recent vintage was the one which sent Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen to the Miami Marlins for Marcell Ozuna, but in the moment, the perception was that the Cardinals had traded away a handful of magic beans to a cheap organization unwilling to retain anyone even moderately expensive. Arguably the most mourned departure from a St. Louis perspective was Magneuris Sierra, the one-tool speedster who still hasn’t shown much ability to hit at a big-league level. The Cardinals lost the trade, yes, but it wasn’t because they behaved in an irrational manner–sometimes you are just some combination of unlucky and wrong.

Like when the Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna, there was a budding consensus when the Cardinals traded for Nolan Arenado that they were taking advantage of a situation where a thrifty team wanted to slash payroll and did not care about fielding a competitive team. And in the case of Nolan Arenado, the trade seemed like an even more obvious win for the team–the Cardinals gave up some lesser prospects plus a serviceable but decidedly unexceptional swingman in Austin Gomber and the Colorado Rockies sent $50 million to St. Louis. Especially in the context of the bulk of Nolan Arenado-Cardinals trade rumors, which had the team sending a package highlighted by a Dylan Carlson or Nolan Gorman, or at the very least a Tyler O’Neill-type player, the reported terms seemed like a mistake.

Long-time St. Louis Bullpen readers may remember my militant, and frankly obnoxious, opposition to trading Dylan Carlson or Nolan Gorman for Nolan Arenado, and despite my relatively dismissive attitude towards the longtime Colorado Rockies third baseman as a good but far from elite player, I was willing to admit that the move to acquire him was perfectly reasonable. But it wasn’t a swindle, in the clinical sense of the word. The Colorado Rockies weren’t crazy–they knew what they were doing. They had an idea, whether the idea was a good one or not. The Rockies were a team that was not going to be competitive in 2021 and they determined that the space in the budget reserved for Arenado could be better used elsewhere, even if it turns out the directive was just to slash payroll–surely, Dick Monfort would be just as content slashing Arenado’s salary from other areas, but that might make the team worse.

Unlike Marcell Ozuna, who was entering his second year of salary arbitration and was due to make something less than he could earn on the open market for the next two seasons when the Cardinals acquired him, Nolan Arenado had already signed a long-term contract within the realm of his open market value–when he put pen to paper prior to the 2019 season, he did so knowing that he was only a few months away from reaching free agency. While players will often leave some money on the table in exchange for the security of that extension, a player of Arenado’s stature was inevitably, barring the absolute worst-case scenario, going to cash in that Winter; this wasn’t a case like, say, Paul DeJong signing an extension 443 plate appearances into his MLB career worth $26 million–yes, he’s been worth $77.9 million per FanGraphs in the 3.37 seasons since and he certainly left a bunch of money on the table, but also he guaranteed himself $26 million so I get it.

Nolan Arenado was due $199 million over the remaining six years of his contract with the Rockies when he was traded, and is presently owed $179 million for the next six seasons–an additional year, $15 million for 2027, was added when the trade was made. With the Colorado Rockies still paying $15 million to Arenado in 2022 (they paid his entire 2021 salary), this brings the Cardinals’ end of the Nolan Arenado contract to six years and $164 million.

If Nolan Arenado were a free agent, would he be worth a six-year, $164 million contract? The most instructive way to look at how Arenado would fare through the current climate is by looking at what free agents are garnering this off-season. Corey Seager is the one free agent whose contract far outpaces Arenado’s (I say this prior to Carlos Correa’s signing, which could potentially join him in that club), though the contract signed by Marcus Semien, who is seven months older than Arenado and is, similarly, a strong defensive infielder (albeit in the middle of the infield), is a reasonable comp. Unlike Arenado’s 6/164 (from a Cardinals perspective), Semien registers at 7/175–a cheaper average annual value, but this also means paying $11 million for Semien’s age-37 season, which…who knows?

Marcus Semien is widely considered an underrated player–that he has had two MVP-caliber seasons in the last three seasons in (chronologically) Oakland and Toronto explains quite a bit of why that is (Josh Donaldson followed an identical path during a run when he was the best non-Mike Trout player in baseball and was rarely if ever regarded as such). Meanwhile, Nolan Arenado has spent the last nine seasons compiling Gold Gloves, some of which he deserved on statistical merit, and all but last season posting inflated home run totals at Coors Field. So perhaps comparing the two is a bit unfair. But both by the recent statistical record and by their projected production in the short-term future, Marcus Semien has been the superior player. Let’s look at their last three seasons by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement and their projected next three seasons by ZiPS.

2021202020193 yr. total2022 ZiPS2023 ZiPS2024 ZiPS
Nolan Arenado4.01.06.111.14.13.32.7
Marcus Semien6.61.27.615.45.54.83.9

All other things being equal, I would rather have Marcus Semien on my baseball team than Nolan Arenado, but of course, for the Cardinals, these things aren’t equal. Nolan Gorman and Jordan Walker have a ton of potential for the future, but neither is a particularly safe option at third base for 2022, whereas all of the players Semien could plausibly replace in the middle infield–Paul DeJong, Tommy Edman, or Edmundo Sosa–project to competent, if not at all Semien-like, levels. But not every team has the dearth of short-term third base options as the Cardinals.

It’s unknowable if Nolan Arenado could’ve matched six years and $179 million (for this purpose, the Cardinals-specific cost is not the relevant metric) on the free agent market, though we do know that Arenado decided not to risk it, choosing not to opt out of his contract after the 2021 season, as he was allowed to do. And since Marcus Semien took fewer dollars for more years, it seems reasonable to think that even if Arenado could squeeze out slightly more on the open market that it wouldn’t be worth risking the $179 million he is currently in line to make.

But that doesn’t even cover the single biggest difference between the Arenado and Semien contracts–while Semien has no opt-outs in his contract with the Texas Rangers, Nolan Arenado can opt out after the 2022 season. Arenado will have the choice in eight months to test free agency to see if he can top a five-year, $144 million contract. If ZiPS is correct, he probably won’t, but Nolan Arenado is also a player who has put up four seasons of 5.0 or more fWAR. The issue from a Cardinals perspective, as is the issue for any team with a player opt-out, is that it inherently places a ceiling on how much value a contract can have for a team. In the (unlikely) scenario that Nolan Arenado finds another level to his game and is worth 10 wins a season for the next six years, only one of them would be with the Cardinals under this current contract–despite efforts by fans to rationalize player opt-outs as being a mechanism for players to avoid situations they personally dislike, they are almost exclusively used (wisely) to maximize salaries. Meanwhile, if Nolan Arenado is straight up terrible in 2022 (again, unlikely), the Cardinals wouldn’t get any respite from that.

None of this is to say that acquiring Nolan Arenado was necessarily a mistake–he was a good player last year, even if it was clear that team-run media was going well out of their way to exaggerate the season in which Arenado was less valuable by FanGraphs or Baseball Reference WAR than he had been in any full season since 2014. His 2021 value should not be lost simply because his team didn’t win the World Series–when acquiring a veteran, the sooner years have outsized importance. And while the Cardinals acquired Arenado likely either slightly past or towards the tail end of his prime–he turned 30 a couple weeks into the 2021 season–this is fairly typical of most free agent signings. It would have been unreasonable to expect Nolan Arenado to match his Colorado Rockies production, but forecasting a slightly diminished version that diminishes slightly going forward is the entire basis of the free agency market. And Arenado should be viewed that way.

The St. Louis Cardinals organization certainly has. While the Cardinals did not pay Arenado any of his $35 million salary in 2021, the club knew that Matt Carpenter and Andrew Miller coming off the books in 2022 would free up $30.5 million going forward, once the team started having to spend on the third baseman. The Cardinals had some mostly dead money on the books, and the frontloaded salary offset from the Rockies seems to have reflected that. The Cardinals currently have an estimated 2022 payroll (arbitration amounts have not been finalized) of $155 million, including the money that the Rockies are paying Nolan Arenado to play for another team. It is not as though the Cardinals have regarded Arenado as found money; instead, they are treating him like a market-ish value free agent acquisition.

That said, treating Nolan Arenado as a free agent signing excludes a pretty significant part of the equation–the Cardinals traded five players for him. Most free agents only cost money, or maybe compensatory picks if they have a qualifying offer attached. Let’s look at those guys:

  • Austin Gomber was the only Major League player sent, and last season, in 115 1/3 innings, he had a 4.53 ERA and 4.61 FIP. These both sound quite bad, but also, he was pitching for the Colorado Rockies, so adjust accordingly. If you don’t know how to adjust–by xERA and xFIP, which adjusts for luck and (more importantly here) park factors, Gomber’s deserved metrics were 4.09 and 4.18. His ERA- and FIP- circled around league-average. While Austin Gomber wouldn’t be a preferred option for the Cardinals’ current rotation, it would also be rather nice, in a vacuum, to have an additional depth pitcher in the likely event that somebody doesn’t make it through the 2022 season in the rotation unscathed.
  • Elehuris Montero is now ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the Rockies organization and was placed on the 40-man roster. Last season in AA, the 22 year-old third baseman had a 137 wRC+, and when promoted to AAA, he remained firmly above-average at 119. ZiPS projects him for the next three years as a reasonable, if uninspiring, third baseman at the MLB level, with WARs of 1.2, 1.5, and 1.7.
  • Mateo Gil advanced to A-ball last season as a 20 year-old, but he struck out a bunch, didn’t walk very much, and finished the season with a 79 wRC+ in 396 plate appearances. He’s still young, but as somebody who isn’t in the Rockies’ top thirty prospects, he probably qualifies as organizational depth and not much more.
  • Tony Locey, the Cardinals’ third-round pick in 2019, had a nice little age-22 season in A-ball for the Rockies by ERA, with a 3.34 in 64 2/3 innings, but given his much higher 4.68 FIP, 5.36 xFIP, and 6.12 walks per nine, he could be a bit dangerous in Colorado. He is not a top 30 prospect.
  • Jake Sommers had a 5.59 ERA pitching in relief in high-A and he will turn 25 in less than two months. He is not considered a major prospect. Like Locey, Sommers is strictly a depth guy.

So what this amounts to is that Nolan Arenado was acquired under what are effectively market terms–if his salary is a slight underpay (which it probably is, considering the amount of the money the Rockies paid), it is also frontloaded (not a team-friendly consideration) and includes two early player opt-outs (very not a team-friendly consideration). In exchange, the Cardinals gave up a fairly light prospect load, but one that could be considered a reasonable proxy for typical compensatory pick production, along with a few low-level lottery ticket type guys. All of this seems about right–the standard cost of doing business. It does not make for the swindle of the century.

One thought on “A look back and forward at the Nolan Arenado trade

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