There have been rumors for much of the offseason that Nolan Arenado might be on the move. Jon Morosi stirred up a ruckus with a pair of reports that the Cardinals were “emerging” in trade talks and that names had been exchanged. As Ben Clemens noted earlier today, the Cardinals do make some sense as a trading partner because Arenado would be a significant upgrade over Matt Carpenter. Arenado would add an immediate three-win upgrade in what should be a very competitive NL Central. The problem with trading for Arenado is not Arenado the player. Any team would be happy to have his steady five-to-six-win performance. The problem with trying to trade for Nolan Arenado is his contract, and it’s not the $234 million owed to him, either. The opt-out after 2021 is a trade-killer.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jeff Passan was throwing water on Cardinals-Rockies trade rumors:
Quick Nolan Arenado update in yes-and-no form, per sources:
– Yes, the Rockies and Cardinals are talking.
– No, the talks haven't gone anywhere.
– No, the exchange of names has not been productive.
– Yes, it's still considered a long shot that Arenado is dealt in the short-term.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 14, 2020
Derrick Goold wrote up a summary of the Arenado activity as well as the Cardinals’ perspective and described the problem as such:
What else is known is how the Cardinals and other teams see Arenado discussions as a Gordian Knot. One source has described them often as “hurdles” to the deal. Arenado has the no-trade clause, and he has the opt-out after the 2021 season. And that’s before a team has to consider the asking price and whether Colorado wants a return on the potential years of control (through 2026) or actual with opt-out (2021). The Rockies are going to want the former; the interested team the latter.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the no-trade clause isn’t an issue. Let’s next move to the dollars owed to Arenado and ignore the opt-out for a moment. Arenado is owed $234 million over the next seven years. He’s a projected five-win player, and adding in some age-related decline, he can be reasonably expected to put up 27.5 WAR over those seven years. On a dollars-per-WAR basis without making any adjustments, that’s $8.5 million per win. On a per-win basis, that’s exactly what the Los Angeles Angels agreed to pay Anthony Rendon. When we factor in the draft pick penalty the Angels paid by signing Rendon, the cost to the Angels is around a quarter of a million dollars more per win than what Arenado is owed.
There is certainly a lot of logic to the notion that if the Cardinals wanted Arenado, then they also should have been in on Rendon as the latter was available for roughly the same monetary cost without having to give up any players. That logic also extends to Josh Donaldson, who, while older, is currently a player of comparable skill to Arenado and signed for $92 million over four years, a sum that is only $22 million more than Arenado is set to make over the next two seasons. There’s also the matter of Kris Bryant’s availability, though that doesn’t affect a decision for the Cardinals. In fact, now that those other players are gone, Arenado might be the only player actually available who can offer a significant upgrade for St. Louis. While these discussions are focused on the Cardinals, somewhat similar logic is in play for other potential suitors like the Braves or Rangers.
If we acknowledge the current scarcity, then we can talk about reasons why Arenado might be better than Rendon. Arenado is younger and has displayed better health, and playing home games in Colorado and road games without the Coors effect might be slightly suppressing the 130 wRC+ he’s put up over the past three years. If we were to add a one-million-dollars-per-WAR premium on Arenado over Rendon, we end up with Arenado’s projected worth about $30 million above what he’s expected to be paid. Now all of a sudden, Andrew Knizner plus Matthew Liberatore and a couple less consequential prospects looks like a reasonable deal from both sides. But then the opt-out gets in the way.
A year ago, Ben Clemens took a look at the opt-outs in the contracts of Manny Machado and Arenado to try and determine their value. For Arenado, he either performed like a five-to-six-win player for three seasons and then opted out or he averaged a little under three wins per season for eight years. That scenario made Arenado’s opt-out valuable at that time, costing a little over a million per WAR compared to a contract without one. That gap has only widened over the past year with Arenado still playing very well and getting a year closer to the opt-out. With the opt-out, the expected rate of pay per win for Arenado gets up near $11 million per win. Adding Liberatore and Knizner to Arenado’s contract with an opt-out makes the cost of Arenado something like $13 million per win. While it’s easy to say that it isn’t your money and to just go get him, it makes less sense when Donaldson and Rendon were available for significantly less or that paying for wins at that price could enable a team to present an overwhelming offer to get a better player like Mookie Betts or Francisco Lindor.
The solution to this Gordian knot is to simply cut the opt-out, a part of the contract that came from the Rockies’ front office. No reasonable trade can be made with the opt-out still intact. Colorado could offer to conditionally pay $8 million per year if Arenado doesn’t opt out, but agreeing to pay $40 million and still not getting a great return package isn’t that feasible. If Arenado was willing to accept a $30 million team option on an eighth year with a $15 million buyout, that wouldn’t come close to the value of the opt-out, but it might provide enough incentive to waive that opt-out. Unfortunately, adding that $15 million guarantee also decreases the potential return. Maybe Knizner and Dakota Hudson are enough to headline a package for Arenado, but if the Rockies want Liberatore or a better prospect like Nolan Gorman or Dylan Carlson, then Colorado should expect to kick in some money, something like three million to five million dollars per year over the life of the contract.
It’s difficult to find a palatable deal for both sides despite Arenado’s considerable talents on the diamond. His opt-out serves to ruin any trade value he might have because he provides potentially two good years of play, but just as likely are seven seasons that are only slightly above-average for more than $30 million per year. Eliminating the opt-out should be a precursor to any deal and the trading team will have to accept more financial responsibility, but if the Rockies actually want a good return, they are going to have to respond by paying down some of Arenado’s salary. There might be an avenue to get to a trade, but there are still quite a few bumps that could prevent teams from traveling that road.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.