Evaluating Nolan Arenado’s Opt-Out Clause

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It would be a scurrilous lie to suggest that adding Nolan Arenado to the St. Louis Cardinals has been anything but a roaring success for the franchise. Arenado’s first season with the Cards may have been a bit down compared to his previous campaigns, but he’s rebounded to have arguably his best season ever in 2022. And with a .292/.358/. 533, 151 wRC+ line good for 7.2 WAR, he’s making a solid case for votes in this year’s National League MVP race, especially with teammate Paul Goldschmidt coming back to the pack thanks to a weak September. The near-certain MVP in the American League, Aaron Judge, will be a free agent this offseason. Could the National League MVP join him? Arenado has an important decision to make.

The Rockies originally signed Arenado to an eight-year, $260 million contract in early 2019. That contract came with an opt-out after the 2021 season, an escape hatch if he wanted to take a crack at free agency. Sadly for Rockies fans, opening that hatch became a possibility almost immediately, with Arenado reportedly becoming unhappy with the path the organization was taking before the first season of the new deal was even complete. Per The Denver Post’s Patrick Saunders:

Although Arenado declined to talk publicly about the details of his deteriorating relationship with Bridich, multiple sources told The Post that Arenado feels like “promises were broken” after he signed an eight-year, $260 million contract last February. At that point, Arenado believed the Rockies were going to make roster moves to further improve a team that made the playoffs in 2017 and 2018.

The rumor mill churned out the trade butter furiously, though no swap occurred during the 2020 season. The COVID-shortened season again saw the Rockies finish below .500; again, the organizational direction was akin to a compass in a magnet factory. With the opt-out after the 2021 season looming large, the Rockies finally pulled the trigger on a trade, sending Arenado and up to $51 million to St. Louis for a relatively unimpressive group of prospects and Austin Gomber. The trade also resulted in some changes to his deal. In exchange for agreeing to waive his no-trade clause and defer some of his salary, Arenado received an extra opt-out after the 2022 season (the Cardinals also tacked on an extra year worth $15 million to the end of the contract). After a down season last year — I use “down” very loosely here — the case for exercising the 2021 opt-out became less compelling. Given the drop-off in performance and his age (Arenado was entering his age-31 season), ZiPS only projected the third baseman to get six years, $120 million as a free agent after 2021. But his monster 2022 season requires a re-evaluation of Arenado’s free agent prospects. There’s no third bite of the apple, so it’s “use it or lose it” time. So, should he? Let’s start with the ZiPS projection:

ZiPS Projection – Nolan Arenado
2023 .282 .343 .479 547 69 154 34 1 24 88 49 72 4 127 12 5.7
2024 .277 .338 .466 513 62 142 32 1 21 80 45 66 4 123 10 5.0
2025 .272 .330 .447 486 56 132 29 1 18 72 40 61 3 115 9 4.1
2026 .263 .317 .420 457 49 120 25 1 15 63 35 54 3 105 8 3.1
2027 .256 .309 .395 425 43 109 21 1 12 54 30 46 2 96 7 2.2
2028 .249 .298 .369 374 34 93 16 1 9 42 24 37 2 86 5 1.4

As great as Arenado has been this year, as with Judge, his age (he’ll turn 32 a couple weeks into the 2023 season) works against him in terms of length and maximum dollar amount. As a free agent, ZiPS thinks that a deal around six years and $180 million would be a fair offer, which is amusingly similar to the seven-year, $182 million deal Kris Bryant signed with the Rockies. If those numbers are accurate, I’m not sure it’s necessarily to Arenado’s benefit to opt out. The five-year, $144 million contract he already has isn’t that much worse when you consider the uncertainty that comes with testing the market, and it seems unlikely that there’s a $250 million deal out there for him. Third base is one of those tweener positions in the middle of the defensive spectrum, with only a handful of third basemen having received $100 million deals. (Here I should note, that several of ZiPS’ biggest misses have come at the position. For example, the computer remains utterly perplexed as to why Justin Turner was only able to get a four-year, $64 million after the 2016 season. On the other side, ZiPS has guessed low a few times, missing on Alex Rodriguez‘s second contract, as well as Pablo Sandoval’s and Bryant’s deals. The first two didn’t work out particularly well for their teams and the latter is off to an inauspicious start.)

With all that in mind, I’m not surprised to see a flurry of reports and speculation pointing to Arenadochoosing to stay put after this season. After all, there are some real benefits to playing for the Cardinals. In marked contrast with Colorado, St. Louis is a very stable organization that is almost always a contender. And being the successor to Ken Boyer, Scott Rolen, and Joe Torre likely has some draw if Arenado has any interest in how his legacy may fit in major league history. St. Louis is one of the places where his glove is most likely to be fully appreciated by both the franchise and the fanbase.

ZiPS projects Arenado to finish with around 400 career homers, and he seems likely to add his 10th Gold Glove in 10 seasons to his collection this fall. The projection leaves him at about 68 WAR, which is Hall of Fame territory, and a JAWS of 60.5 (now calculated in ZiPS). That last number would leave him ninth in major league history just behind Ron Santo and Brooks Robinson, with Manny Machado 10th. Rolen’s prospects for induction have steadily improved since his first year on the ballot, and it’s unlikely that the voter base in 12 to 15 years will be less inclined to vote for a sabermetrically viable candidate. Plus, leaving Denver may have saved Arenado from what I call the Preposterous Performance Paradox, whereby middling Rockies hitters like Vinny Castilla and Dante Bichette become very overrated, but the truly elite ones like Larry Walker and Todd Helton somehow remain under-appreciated. My working theory is that when Coors Field makes average numbers look excellent, people look at them and say, “Hey, that’s an excellent season,” but when Coors Field makes excellent numbers look absolutely absurd, there’s a tendency to think that something isn’t quite right.

In any case, we’ll know more about Arenado’s future in a few weeks. If he chooses to stay in St. Louis, he’ll remain in a situation that fits him like a (Gold) glove.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

How is the decision affected by the 5/144M being worth less because of the 6M in deferred money for 23-26?