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Brown: Persistence and patience pays off for Cardinals in Nolan Arenado trade

by Chris Brown

First it was Mookie Betts last offseason. Then Francisco Lindor roughly one month ago. Now another franchise cornerstone is on the move, as the St. Louis Cardinals have officially acquired superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies in one of the more complicated trades in baseball history, providing a massive jolt into an offseason of inactivity in the NL Central.

St. Louis’ interest in Arenado has been known for years, but unlike with Betts or Lindor, there were several additional obstacles standing in the way of a deal for the Cardinals or anyone else. The thought was that any suitor would likely end up: 1) Inheriting a contract that allows Arenado to opt out after one season, 2) Being on the hook for most, if not all, of the $199 million over six years Arenado is owed assuming he doesn’t opt out, and 3) Surrendering several top prospects.

While one or two of those aspects may not be an insurmountable hurdle, the combination of all three is what made many — myself included — believed an Arenado trade this offseason was ultimately unlikely. A move involving all three of those aspects certainly wasn’t within the M.O. of the Cardinals front office, to be sure.

But in the end, the redbirds didn’t have to do all that to acquire Arenado. The Rockies front office was willing to accept a package of largely second and third-tier prospects and has paid St. Louis roughly $50 million to take a perennial MVP candidate and eight-time Gold Glove Award winner off their hands. That $50 million, by the way, is more than Colorado has spent on any free agent since closer Wade Davis in December 2017.

It’s worth repeating because of just how staggering it is: the Colorado Rockies traded away the face of their franchise in his prime in exchange for a handful of non-highly-rated prospects and are also helping pay for him to play elsewhere. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have eliminated or minimized many of the potential risks of an Arenado deal and have added one of the best players in baseball for potentially several years to come.

It’s impossible to know how blockbuster trades will end up playing out on day one, but there’s simply no way to not look at this as an incredible victory for a Cardinals front office that’s remained incredibly patient, often to the frustration of its fans. 

A few additional details about the trade: Arenado has reportedly agreed to defer a percentage of his salaries and one year and $15 million is added to the end of his six remaining years under contract (providing he doesn’t opt-out). He does retain his opt-out following the 2021 season and gets another tacked on after 2022.

That last part, the fact that Arenado could depart after just one or two seasons in St. Louis, is a risk for the Cardinals. But even in that scenario, the team will have paid him a reasonable price for that year or two, have payroll freed up for other moves and isn’t likely to be regretting dealing those prospects given the quality and depth of its farm system. 

But let’s say Arenado remains with the Cardinals for the entire length of that adjusted contract. Instead of St. Louis being responsible for paying him nearly $200 million over six seasons, they’ll be on the hook for (if all reports are correct) roughly $164 million for seven seasons. In other words, they’ll be paying him an average of around $23.4 million through 2027.

Over the last five full seasons (excluding 2020), FanGraphs’ model estimates Arenado — who’s averaged 157 games played, 40 homers and 124 RBI while hitting .300/.362/.575 during that span — has been worth $36 million, $40 million, $46 million, $46 million and $48 million.

To be clear, Arenado is going to regress from those numbers in the years ahead, due in part to being away from the extremely hitter-friendly Coors Field but mostly due to age. The very end of that contract, when he’s approaching his late 30s, could be a bit rough for St. Louis, as is the case with all contracts of that nature. But simply put, Arenado would have to regress really drastically in the next few years for this deal not to work out as a win for the Cardinals. 

In the short term, the redbirds have immediately become the clear favorites in an NL Central where few teams seem interested in improving their club. The Cubs swapped Kyle Schwarber for Joc Pederson but dealt Yu Darvish to the Padres and let Jon Lester head to Washington. The Reds have parted ways with their top two relievers and aren’t likely to bring back Trevor Bauer. The Pirates dealt away the top hitter and two top pitchers from a last place team. And the Brewers have done next to nothing of note. 

With the possibility of further additions prior to the start of the season, it remains unclear how the Cardinals will stack up against the NL’s top contenders. Regardless, they’ve just made an uncharacteristically boring division with nearly every team asleep at the wheel a lot more interesting by doing something few clubs have this winter: committing to spending real money to improve their roster.

And now one of the best third basemen in MLB history has the chance to get what’s been denied to him in Denver: the chance to be a part of a legitimate contender for years to come.

Photo by Ian D’Andrea / Flickr

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