Cardinals Acquire Nolan Arenado in Blockbuster Trade

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.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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r24j
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r24j

Thanks for this late-night write up! I think you hit the nail on the head – it’s an “unmitigated disaster” for the Rockies.

The organization is a joke. They feel like the final holdout in terms of front offices that haven’t evolved past 2003. People I’ve known in or around that organization all but confirm the same thing.

It’s just a shame. Colorado always does well when it comes to attendance. Denver is an awesome city. And they were just competitive 2-3 seasons ago. You extend the best player you’ve ever developed to a very reasonable deal, and trash talk him publicly shortly thereafter. Is it that hard to keep your biggest star happy? It didn’t take long to know that his departure was inevitable. And they’re best option when they did finally trade him also necessitated giving away $50 million only to get back one MLB-ready arm with 100 innings under his belt and some lottery tickets without much of a ceiling?

I’ll just never get how incompetent that owner and front office are. A lot of trends in baseball lately are gross. Guys like Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor were shown the door by the team who developed them for short-term financial gain. Only a handful of teams are even trying to win. But this? This is Colorado doing Colorado things. It’s the least surprising news ever. We could’ve all predicted they’d ship out Arenado and get nothing back. What’s the plan now? The farm is terrible, the player development process is a mess, the big league team will get shellacked in their division, and now they’ve traded a generational talent. With Trevor Story likely next to go, what’s the vision?

That team needs serious help and I hope for the sake of their fans, that maybe the Rockies can join us in 2021 and establish some kind of framework or structure for future success. This team as is just exists, and that’s not good enough anymore.

Mike
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Mike

The front office has been horrible. But it’s not because of this deal. It’s because of Blackmon, Desmond, Murphy, Davis. There’s no world where the Rockies are competitive with the Dodgers and Padres in the next 3 years with or without Arenado. By the time they’d be relevant again, Arenado is in his late 30s and this contract is even further underwater. It does make sense to trade him, Marquez, and Story.

Now I think the return was lackluster. They probably could have taken on Fowler’s contract and gotten Gorman. Or gotten younger prospects. Because the fact is the $8m/WAR math breaks down when you are talking about elite guys (it’s exponential not linear). But this was probably still an under water contract and were talking about getting a pile of 45s for cash rather than what a fair return for Arenado is

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

It’s true that this deal is a lot less bad than the Blackmon, Desmond, Davis deals, but that’s not saying much. The Rockies have spent their money very badly. I can’t think of a single free agent deal that wasn’t the equivalent of lighting money on fire, and they didn’t get a discount with Arenado or Blackmon on the extensions.

As far as the return goes, I don’t think they’d get Gorman, and I don’t think they’d get a pile of 45s (I think most, if not all of these guys, are 40s). First of all, I think Fowler has a no-trade clause himself, so that would add another layer to the whole thing. Second, I think the attraction for the Cardinals is that they don’t have to give up anyone who is or ever would project to be a major contributor. If the deal involves giving up a real contributor or a potential contributor then I don’t think the Cardinals make this deal.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Yeah, while Fowler is overpaid, he’s still one of the 3 best outfielders the Cardinals have right now (considering they now need Edman mostly at 2B), and there’s not a lot of talent behind those 3 unless O’Neill and/or Thomas can step up in a big way.

Richard Bergstrom
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Richard Bergstrom

The Rockies are a case study in failed opportunity cost. They had a decent chance to be a really good team, but they couldn’t develop a first baseman and had one of the worst producing outfields in baseball. Those should be the two easiest things for a team in Colorado to do.

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

I agree on this point. The choice wasn’t “be competitive or trade Arenado”. The choice was “Shell out a bunch of money so you can finish at best 3rd in your division, or start planning for 2024” The team as is isn’t making a dent except by wild luck, so pick up some lottery pieces, develop your guys, take your lumps in the media for rebuilding , and try to hit the right window.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Yes, WAR/dollars is by no means linear, but the $8M per WAR calculation is for the star level players (maybe even a little higher for superstars like Arenado). It’s the guys putting up 3 WAR or less who are worth a lot less than $8M/WAR. You can still argue the return was underwhelming, but it’s not because Arenado was overpaid in the first place except maybe in the last couple years of the contract.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I partly, but do not entirely agree. Here’s where I disagree: The contract was underwater. If he was healthy they might get something good back if they ate that much of the contract, but with the injury the headliner was always going to look like Austin Gomber. If they “had” to trade him, this was as good as they were going to get.

But I still don’t like the deal. I would have traded Story and Marquez and dared him to opt-out after he had a shot to rebuild his value, or at least, traded him when he was healthy. The Rockies have actually done okay on trades.

So I do think this comes down to: Did they “have” to trade him? And while it’s hard to tell who is at fault, the answer in this situation usually comes back to the ownership. Trading Story and Marquez would cut the same amount of costs in 2021, set them up better for future success, and would probably give them a shot to exit the contract completely and/or get some value back for him. But they’re talking about pivoting to extending Story, which sounds totally nonsensical and further makes me think this is an ownership thing.

MikeD
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MikeD

I can’t imagine Story wanting to sign an extension seeing where the Rockies are headed currently, and how they only recently signed Arenado to a long extension, only to sell him at a discount a couple years later. Perhaps they’ll use the “savings” from moving Arenado to make a huge offer to Story that he may decide he can’t refuse, but I’d look to move on if I was in his position. The Rockies, knowing that, should look to trade Story now for prospects and start a full-on rebuild. Question is, what team could they even trade him to at this moment? He’s a rental. Only a contending team would pay for that rental, and we just had multiple SS’s either get traded and/or signed as free agents with several teams. Clubs have already locked in their SS’s as ST camps are set to open in a couple weeks. They waited too long if they were entertaining trading Story now. That may indicate they really are going to try and sign Story, but it takes two to tango, and one of the partners may not have happy feet currently.

The market for Story a year from now will be high. At this moment, however, it appears to be limited.

fjtorres
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fjtorres

Right.
A one year rental SS *now*?
Most contenders and pretenders have made their moves already.
Who remains?

TheGarrettCooperFanClub
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TheGarrettCooperFanClub

The Reds should at least be talking about Story.

MikeD
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MikeD

Sure. Any team that looks to contend and needs a SS should be at the top of the list. The Reds and the A’s are at the top of that list. The challenge is I can’t see either team paying his $18.5M salary in 2021, plus paying the prospect cost to acquire him knowing it’s a one-year rental. That gets back to my original point about timing. He’s a talented player who teams would want, but timing may be the Rockies downfall here.

fjtorres
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fjtorres

Timing.
Exactly.

In December they could’ve moved all three.
But now most of the contenders and pretenders are set at SS.
If tge Reds were pretending to comoete they wouldn’t be looking to move Gray and/or Castillo.
And does anybody really see Oakland spending $18M on a rental?
Last week Philly might’ve taken Story but they gave a Didi a two year deal.
So, who remains?
Texas? They’re sort-of rebuilding after moving Lynn.

If they do find a taker it would be a pure salary dump with nithing even close to fair value back.

Raphael Silva
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Raphael Silva

The Cardinals could really use an upgrade at SS! DeJong is not a championship-caliber player. Maybe the Rockies would take Rob Kaminsky in exchange? 😉

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

Yes, trading Arenado while keeping Story would be hugely idiotic. Unfortunately they have now waited until most of the SS needy teams are set for the start of the season. Maybe the Angels blow them away, otherwise it’s the trade deadline.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Who says he’s still not healthy? I thought all indications were that his shoulder should be fine. There’s always a chance for a setback, but his health shouldn’t be a major contributing factor on the trade return.

12 to six
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12 to six

not a rockies fan by any stretch. from a neutral perspective, their farm system and player development *at the minor league level* seems to have been extraordinary – just since 2015, all of the following is talent that has been on the rockies roster and is entirely or predominantly home grown: lemahieu, story, arenado, blackmon, gonzalez, dahl, marquez, chatwood, freeland, senzatela, gray, mcmahon, hampson, tulowitzki.

that’s sort of insane! there are eight all-star (or close enough) players in there and the rest are at least solid MLB roster guys.

the free agent signings and front office work (inclusive of further development of players at the mlb level and their medical team – maybe its in the beer and high altitude, but that team has been like a mash unit) has been mindbendingly bad – look at their history during the last half decade alone; as has been pointed out elsewhere, they haven’t made a single “good” free agent signing, period.

that said, while the quality of the talent they got back from the cardinals can be argued, i think this is actually a smart time to cut bait on arenado. i know home/road splits aren’t as much as they used to be, but his are legitimately brutal and the shoulder injury last year seemed to sap his power and bat speed. his swing path coming around from the load position seemed substantially different than previous years. were i the cardinals, i’d be very concerned about having now having a third based matched set with goldschmidt.

Lauren Walker
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Lauren Walker

…I think the Cardinals would be quite pleased to see a matching stat line of .304/.417/.466 to pair with Goldy.

12 to six
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12 to six

that’s just last year – .270/.364/.473 for goldschmidt since joining st. loo (for 52mm).

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

2019 was easily Goldy’s worst full season to date (yet still significantly above-average) and likely a fluke. I wouldn’t expect him to fall back to that level for at least a couple more years.

12 to six
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12 to six

i’d be more willing to throw out 2020 vs. 2019. goldie’s batting average and obp declined five straight seasons prior to 2020, and his slugging and obp declined three straight seasons prior to 2020, with his bb rate declining and his strikeouts increasing as well overall.

he’s slower, he’s hitting fewer doubles (as well as home runs), he’s striking out more, and his defense has slipped substantially.

don’t get me wrong – he’s still a fine first baseman, and i think his ‘downside’ is 2019ish – .250-260 with good power numbers shielding an overall decline and probably made to look better by a reasonably well-stocked lineup. goldschmidt is still one of the better options in the nl for a 1b-only guy, but that’s more telling of his lack of optionality from a positional perspective than anything else – all things considered, 26mm for that level of production is a LOT in today’s market.

i’m not crapping on goldschmidt – i think he’s been a fantastic player, but the cardinals are paying for his downside. i’d be a bit leery of arenado for the same reasons. all that said, the cardinals got a steal of a deal, i’m just not sure as to how much of a steal it’ll actually end up being.