Cardinals Acquire Nolan Arenado in Blockbuster Trade by Ben Clemens January 30, 2021 For years, rumors have connected Nolan Arenado and the St. Louis Cardinals. Some of it was wishcasting — Cardinals fans have spent the last 25 years expecting (and often seeing) trades for unhappy superstars, and Arenado sure seemed unhappy. Some of it was actual interest — the Cardinals have been in the superstar trade market and the Rockies have been in the move-Arenado market at various points. Today, it’s happening: per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, Arenado has been traded to the Cardinals for five players: Austin Gomber, Mateo Gil, Tony Locey, Elehuris Montero, and Jake Sommers. The sticking point in any Arenado trade was always going to be capitalism. That’s painting with a broad brush, so let’s rephrase: there’s no doubt that Arenado is one of the best players in the game, but the vagaries of his contract and the math of surplus value combined to limit a potential return. Remember when Giancarlo Stanton got traded to the Yankees for essentially nothing? This would be like that, only potentially even worse. Arenado is due $199 million over the next six years. That’s a large contract, as befits a player of his stature. If you value one win above replacement at around $8 million (my best estimate at present, though the error bars are huge given the pandemic), Arenado would need to produce roughly 25 WAR over the next six years to break even. We’ve got ZiPS forecasts for the next five of those years: ZiPS Projection – Nolan Arenado Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR 2021 .262 .331 .471 546 78 143 27 3 27 83 57 91 2 112 10 4.0 2022 .259 .326 .461 514 71 133 26 3 24 75 53 84 2 109 9 3.4 2023 .256 .322 .443 492 66 126 25 2 21 69 49 78 2 103 8 2.9 2024 .254 .318 .431 469 60 119 22 2 19 62 45 71 2 99 7 2.4 2025 .248 .309 .410 444 54 110 20 2 16 55 40 64 2 91 6 1.7 The numbers fall a little short, which is why finding a trading partner for Arenado has proved so elusive even as rumors of his availability persisted. That doesn’t even take into account a player option that would allow him to become a free agent after the 2021 season; it’s hard to trade a lot for a player who might not be on your team in a year’s time. Those are the reasons that Arenado was a strange piece to fit in a trade. The counter? Arenado is an awesome player! He’s Nolan Arenado, for crying out loud. Over the last five years, he’s been the seventh-best position player in the game. At 29, he’s not a spring chicken anymore, but he’s still one of the best third basemen out there. Every single team in baseball would be improved by adding him, even if they had to shift a few pieces around to fit him in. This weird dichotomy — excellent player, middling trade chip — explains the strangeness of this deal. Though the terms of the deal aren’t final, the Rockies are reportedly sending roughly $50 million to the Cardinals as part of the trade, and Arenado has agreed to defer some of his compensation to further sweeten the financial pot for St. Louis. The Cardinals gave Arenado an extra opt-out and an extra year reported at $15 million in exchange. There are all kinds of wild financial things going on in this deal, but let’s skip all that for now and focus on what St. Louis is getting on the field. The highlight of this trade is pretty clear: the Cardinals just got a new best player on their team. The NL Central is up for grabs this year, and the four teams with a realistic shot at it have spent the offseason doing a whole lot of nothing. Adam Wainwright, who signed earlier this week, was the first player the Cardinals inked to a major league contract all offseason. Adding Arenado changes that. Slash lines are a silly way of thinking about production for Rockies players, but even if you adjust his line for park effects, Arenado’s career .293/.349/.541 batting line is 18% better than average. Even with a little age-related decline baked in, that gives him the second-best offensive projection on the team, behind only fellow NL West transplant Paul Goldschmidt. While Goldschmidt plays the least demanding position on the field, Arenado is a better defender than hitter. He’s won a Gold Glove in every year of his career, and this isn’t a case of reputation outstripping production; DRS thinks he’s been worth a whopping 120 runs above average in his career, a full 30 runs better than his closest competition at the position. UZR is inherently more conservative, but it also thinks he’s been the best third-base defender in the game. Even Outs Above Average concurs, the rare time that every advanced defensive metric is in agreement. In 2021, Arenado represents a huge upgrade from incumbent Matt Carpenter. Carpenter has been below average with the bat in each of the last two seasons, and while he’s improved defensively, did you see what I just wrote about Arenado in the field? This isn’t close, and it isn’t close to being close. Even if the Cardinals get absolutely nothing out of Carpenter — he’ll be first in line if the NL has a DH, and can also back up first and third base — we now project the Cardinals as favorites in the Central. That’s not the end of the story when you’re trading for a player with so many years remaining on his contract, but it’s a good start. How those future years look is a decidedly murkier question than it was this time last year. Arenado played through the entire 2020 season with an injured left shoulder, and his offense suffered. He posted his lowest OBP and SLG since his rookie year, before his offensive breakout. The culprit? A complete lack of power on contact. His xwOBACON (expected production on contact) was in the bottom 10% of the league, and was the worst of his career by 98 points. wOBA is scaled to OBP, so uh, 98 points is pretty bad! Every other metric you might care to look at agreed: the power simply wasn’t there. Have a favorite contact quality metric? He set a new career low in it. His 5.4% barrel rate was below average. His hard-hit rate was his worst since 2014 and also below average. Expected slugging? You guessed it — worst of his career. Home runs per fly ball? Worst since 2013. Oof. That power outage obscured a few marginal improvements. Arenado has always been a free swinger, but he reined in his aggression somewhat, upped his contact rate, and struck out only 10% of the time, the lowest number in his already-contact-happy career. It wasn’t some short-season fluke, either; his swinging strike rate was also a career low. You just couldn’t tell because he was avoiding strikeouts only to loft a fly ball to shallow left field. Even counting the improved plate discipline, however, Arenado’s lost 2020 weighed on his projections. To figure out how heavily, Dan Szymborski did a little ZiPS magic. He replaced Arenado’s actual 2020 with his 2019 statistics, then re-ran his projections with those inputs. That hypothetical world adds back a lot of the shine that Arenado recently lost: ZiPS Projection – Nolan Arenado Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR WAR 2021 .271 .344 .501 565 86 153 28 3 32 92 63 100 3 123 9 5.0 2022 .269 .340 .487 536 79 144 27 3 28 84 58 93 2 119 8 4.3 2023 .264 .334 .468 515 73 136 26 2 25 77 54 88 2 113 7 3.6 2024 .259 .328 .449 490 67 127 23 2 22 69 50 81 2 106 6 2.9 2025 .254 .319 .430 465 60 118 21 2 19 62 44 73 2 99 5 2.1 To show what an outsize effect Arenado’s 2020 had on his future projections, take a look at ZiPS’ percentile estimates for 2021: ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Nolan Arenado Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR 90% .279 .357 .561 537 85 150 31 6 36 97 66 75 3 141 6.1 80% .269 .344 .517 540 82 145 30 4 32 90 63 81 2 127 5.1 70% .266 .341 .501 541 80 144 29 4 30 89 62 85 2 122 4.8 60% .263 .336 .490 543 79 143 28 4 29 86 60 88 2 118 4.4 50% .262 .331 .471 546 78 143 27 3 27 83 57 91 2 112 4.0 40% .258 .326 .459 547 77 141 26 3 26 81 56 95 1 108 3.6 30% .255 .321 .444 549 75 140 26 3 24 78 54 99 1 103 3.3 20% .253 .318 .435 550 73 139 25 3 23 75 53 105 1 100 3.0 10% .249 .310 .408 554 72 138 24 2 20 72 49 116 1 91 2.3 It would take an 80th percentile outcome just to equal that 2020-agnostic projection. In other words, if you think that Arenado’s shoulder injury both caused his decline and is fully healed, ZiPS might be underselling him considerably. That’s not how real life works — 2020 did happen, and injuries take a toll — but it’s reasonable to think that the shoulder injury might be having an outsized impact on the projections, at least enough to shade him up slightly in your mind. With that out of the way — the Cardinals got a new best player in a competitive division, and how well he ages is up in the air — let’s talk about the convoluted financial dealings that made this trade work. The Rockies are sending roughly $50 million to St. Louis to defray part of Arenado’s salary. That makes it a six-year, $149 million contract from St. Louis’s perspective — or it would, if there weren’t even more strangeness afoot. As part of the deal, Arenado agreed to defer an unspecified amount of his salary. That lowers the present value of the contract for St. Louis and potentially helps them with cash flow considerations. Given that their biggest investment in recent years hasn’t been a player but instead a real estate development surrounding Busch Stadium, a little cash leeway might come in handy. In exchange for deferring his salary, Arenado got two carrots. First, he now has a second opt-out in the deal after the 2022 season. Why he added a second one instead of merely moving the first back I have no clue, but giving the market an extra year to recover before deciding whether to seek a new contract makes sense. This year has provided little clarity on the free agent market, and next year at this time there may be a brand-new CBA. An extra year to survey the field — and potentially to rebuild his value — could make a world of difference. If he decides not to opt out, he’ll have an extra year on the contract, at a rate of $15 million. I haven’t heard this specifically, but my guess is that the extra year and the opt out were necessary to get the player’s union to sign off on this deal. A player agreeing to defer money on an existing contract might set a bad precedent, so an extra option and year evened the scales. Complicated enough for you? Whatever you think of that new arrangement, the Cardinals thought that it made Arenado attractive enough to surrender a sampler platter of controllable pitching and intriguing lottery tickets, though none of the team’s top tier of prospects are on the move — this isn’t the premium platter with caviar and oysters by any means. Austin Gomber has pitched 100 solid innings in the majors, and profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter or long reliever. He throws a slider and curve both set up by a decent four-seam fastball, but his middling velocity doesn’t give him much margin for error. Locey, who was a starter at Georgia, is a likely reliever unless he develops a third pitch and a little command. He could be solid in that role, however; he was touching the upper 90s even as a starter and features a plus breaking ball. Past that, we’re getting into speculative territory. Gil hasn’t made it out of rookie ball yet, but scouts like his bat speed and his defensive versatility. Montero looked like a potential fast-riser before 2019, when he tried Double-A and was overmatched as well as injured. He’s strong and has the agility for third base, but his swing-first swing-second approach got exposed and might require a retool. Jake Sommers — well, I honestly don’t know that much about Jake Sommers. He was a mid-round senior sign out of UWM in 2019, where he bounced back and forth between starting and relieving. Eric Longenhagen will cover these prospects in more detail, but the upshot is that while there are a lot of bodies here, none of them are showstoppers. You could say that the Rockies went for quantity over quality in their return, but I think that misstates it. In reality, they washed their hands of Arenado to get rid of his contract, and received some token prospects in return so that they could tell their fans it wasn’t a purely financial decision. What’s the big picture of this trade? For the Rockies, it’s an unmitigated disaster. Arenado was supposed to be the team’s generational star. They managed to sign him to an extension, gave him an opt out so that he could leave if he didn’t care for the direction the team was headed in, and promptly headed in the wrong direction. They also gave him enough money that they started to worry he wouldn’t opt out, leaving them on the hook for a star’s salary without a good team around him. Bob Nightengale reported that the Rockies will now pivot to extension talks with Trevor Story. I have to imagine that Story’s response would be short, laughter-filled, and dismissive. He’s a free agent after this year, and while there’s some number that he wouldn’t say no to and a crowded shortstop market waiting for him, it’s clear from the way this trade went down that the team feels burdened by heavy financial commitments. I can’t see a future where Story stays in Colorado in the aftermath of this teardown. As for the Cardinals, they turned a handful of minor leaguers into literally Nolan Arenado. It might not be pretty in five years, but aging is unpredictable, and with Colorado kicking in a full quarter of the contract, it’s not even a particularly bad rate. There are really no two ways to put it: this is a phenomenal deal for St. Louis. Whatever the financial backdrop of baseball, whatever the surplus valuation calculations that fill teams’ ledgers, star power still matters. If you want to win the World Series, you need stars. If you want to be an exciting team, you need stars. The Cardinals, for all their ability to develop average players out of sawdust and hope, have been sorely lacking in the showstopper department of late, Goldschmidt notwithstanding. With patience and persistence, however, they got their target. While the financial fallout is still unclear, speaking (for the first and only time in this article) as a Cardinals fan, let me tell you this: I don’t care. This was a tremendous deal for the Red Birds, and I guarantee you that the other teams in the NL Central are unhappy tonight. This article has been edited to reflect the final group of players headed to Colorado, which was made official Monday, February 1.