Nolan Arenado’s future in Colorado — or perhaps the lack thereof — will be one of the main storylines throughout the 2020-21 offseason. The 29-year-old has publicly voiced dissatisfaction with the organization in the past, and another poor season followed comments from owner Dick Monfort that foreshadow a tight-budgeted winter don’t figure to improve the relationship.
In this week’s Offseason Outlook for the Rockies, I laid out the reasons that trading Arenado isn’t as simple as some might think. On the surface, a five-time All-Star who has won eight Gold Gloves in eight MLB seasons while hitting .293/.349/.541 and averaging nearly five WAR per season seems like a player who’d be highly in demand. As with any player, however, Arenado’s trade value is inextricably linked to his contractual status, and the franchise-record extension he signed in 2019 muddies the water.
Arenado is still owed a hefty six years and $199MM between now and the 2026 season. He’s due $35MM in 2021, and his contract allows him to opt out of the remaining five years and $164MM at season’s end. Any club that acquires Arenado recognizes there’s a chance he’ll only be around for one season. If Arenado plays at the level an acquiring team would hope for upon making the trade, that team knows there’s a chance he’ll opt out. The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously changed the financial outlook for many clubs and altered the sports economy, but Arenado would surely look at Anthony Rendon’s seven-year, $245MM contract and wonder whether he could approach that level with a big 2021 showing.
On the other hand, Arenado had his worst season ever at the plate in 2020 and finished the year on the IL due to shoulder soreness. That’s enough to already make some clubs wary, particularly because if that proves to be the start of a trend, they’d be stuck paying more than $33MM annually to a player on the decline. There’s no way Arenado opts out if he repeats this past season’s .253/.303/.454 output, so there’s inherent risk of being stuck with an albatross contract here.
A trade is further complicated by the fact that the Rockies would of course want to receive quality young talent in return. The optics of dumping Arenado simply to be rid of his salary would be extraordinarily poor for Monfort and general manager Jeff Bridich. Given the risk associated with the contract and Arenado’s shaky 2020 campaign, it’s frankly difficult to imagine a team taking on Arenado’s contract and parting with considerable prospect capital. The Rockies might have to pay down some of the deal and/or take another sizable salary on in return if they hope to find a palatable trade.
As if that context doesn’t complicate matters enough, also consider that Arenado has a full no-trade clause baked into the deal. He may welcome the the opportunity for a fresh start, but it’s possible he’ll need to be incentivized to waive that clause as well. Topping things off is that he’s not even the only All-Star third baseman who could be moved this winter. The Cubs figure to seriously entertain the possibility of trading Kris Bryant. A former Rookie of the Year and NL MVP, Bryant is coming off a down season of his own but has a similar ceiling with none of Arenado’s long-term risk. Bryant is in his final year of arbitration and is a free agent next winter. Only one team can get Bryant, of course, so interested teams that miss out could turn to Arenado. It’s also possible that some clubs prefer the Arenado gamble — long-term risk and all. Regardless, Bryant’s presence on the market plays a factor in any potential Arenado talks.
Suffice it to say, trading Arenado is a daunting task for the Rockies. Based on name value alone, one might think nearly every team would be inclined to look, but the majority of clubs around the game can be written off almost immediately. We can rule out low-spending clubs like the Indians, Pirates, Rays, Athletics and Marlins, as Arenado’s contract would be considered too extravagant for their budgets. The D-backs are still paying Zack Greinke to play for someone else and traded Paul Goldschmidt away rather than meeting his $130MM extension price — far less than the $199MM owed to Arenado.
The Brewers already gave a mega-deal to Christian Yelich and wouldn’t risk a second one. The Angels signed Rendon to the aforementioned $245MM deal last winter, and the Twins are very likely out after inking Josh Donaldson for $92MM. Cincinnati has Eugenio Suarez at third base and probably couldn’t stomach paying a combined $60MM to Arenado and Joey Votto anyhow, as phonetically pleasing as that pairing might otherwise be. The Astros have Alex Bregman at third base and could conceivably move him to another position, but that’s a reach with Carlos Correa locked in at shortstop. The Phillies look set at the corners with Alec Bohm and Rhys Hoskins.
We can also eliminate any clubs that are in the midst of a rebuild. The Rangers appear to be just starting down that road, and the Orioles aren’t far enough along in the process to consider a splash of this magnitude. The Tigers and Royals are hoping to soon emerge from rebuilding efforts, but this doesn’t seem likely for either unless it’s part of a sudden and unexpected all-in push. Elsewhere in the AL Central, the White Sox have a strong infield as is and would probably prefer to allocate resources to the rotation and/or right field. Maybe they could try Yoan Moncada in right, but Arenado is something of a square peg in a round hole for the South Siders.
Over in St. Louis, the Cardinals have been connected to a heavy-hitting third baseman for years, be it Arenado or Donaldson. It hasn’t come to pass yet, and while the need very arguably still exists after Matt Carpenter floundered through a tough 2020 season, it’s hard to imagine the Cardinals adding a contract of this magnitude. This is the same team that just declined Kolten Wong’s $12.5MM option in the name of financial flexibility, and the same club that seems to be grappling with whether it can afford to re-sign franchise icons Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Owner Bill DeWitt Jr. brazenly lamented the baseball industry’s lack of profitability earlier this spring and more recently offered a very reserved assessment of his club’s payroll outlook.
That’s a whole lot of teams that don’t seem likely to jump in on Arenado, so let’s turn to run through some clubs that might not be immediately ruled out.
Mets: Now backed by baseball’s richest owner and suddenly spared the $20.25MM they previously owed to Robinson Cano in 2021, the Mets are seemingly connected to every big fish on the free-agent and trade markets alike. Arenado would add an all-world defender to a club whose defense has been miserable for several years running. Incumbents J.D. Davis and Jeff McNeil are solid options, but McNeil can play second with Cano suspended and Arenado should be a big upgrade over Davis. The Mets could conceivably even put Davis in a package to acquire Arenado, as he’d give the Rox a controllable, quality alternative with a nice bat.
Nationals: The loss of Rendon was clearly felt throughout the Nationals’ lineup in 2020, as Carter Kieboom wasn’t able to step up and fill the void. The Nats have Max Scherzer’s contract off the books after the 2021 season and could reallocate those long-term dollars to Arenado while entrusting Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin to front the rotation. Washington’s payroll ranks toward the top of the league on a yearly basis, and GM Mike Rizzo isn’t afraid to make high-priced splashes. Adding Arenado would block Kieboom at third base, perhaps pushing him to second base or making him expendable in a trade — be it this hypothetical deal or another swap.
Braves: The Braves don’t have a clear third baseman in light of Austin Riley’s struggles, making this a solid on-paper fit. However, this is the exact type of move general manager Alex Anthopoulos has avoided since coming to Atlanta. He eschewed a long-term commitment to Josh Donaldson despite considerable fan backlash and has yet to acquire any player on more than a three-year deal (Will Smith). The seven- and eight-year deals for Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna Jr. were pre-arbitration bargains — the polar opposite of paying top-of-the-market value for a superstar already approaching his 30th birthday. Additionally, the club will likely still need to set aside some money to extend Freddie Freeman. This will be a frequently suggested landing spot for Arenado, but contextually, it doesn’t feel as strong as it looks at first glance.
Blue Jays: General manager Ross Atkins has already talked about acquiring “elite” players this winter, as the Jays have watched a strong young core emerge at the MLB level. Incumbent third baseman Travis Shaw is an obvious non-tender candidate, and while the Jays have some appealing youngsters down on the farm, a healthy Arenado is better than the ceiling of virtually any third base prospect. The Blue Jays quietly have quite a bit of financial flexibility, and if they could try to send Randal Grichuk back to Colorado as one of the pieces to offset a portion of the weight of Arenado’s contract (and fill a need for the Rockies at the same time).
Dodgers: A team with pockets as deep as the Dodgers and a farm system to match is of course going to be mentioned in connection to any high-profile trade target. They’ve been linked to Arenado in the past, and this morning while I was finishing this very piece, MLB.com’s Jon Morosi wrote about their continued interest. Adding Arenado would effectively displace free agent Justin Turner, who is revered in the L.A. clubhouse, but at least for the moment, there’s a vacancy at the hot corner at Dodger Stadium. Of course, the Dodgers just locked up Mookie Betts on his own mega-deal and may not be keen on issuing another. And it’s anyone’s guess whether the Rockies would actually consider trading one of the best players in franchise history to a division nemesis.
Giants: Speaking of division rivals — the Giants look to be coming out of their own rebuilding effort and have the money to take on Arenado’s contract. Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Johnny Cueto will all be off the books after the 2021 season, leaving the long-term payroll outlook wide open. Veteran Evan Longoria is a roadblock at third base for the moment, but the Giants could send him back to Colorado as a means of both giving the Rockies a ready-made replacement and also offsetting some of the considerable cost they’d be taking on with Arenado’s contract. Younger talent would surely need to be added to make this appealing for the Rockies, of course. President of baseball ops Farhan Zaidi has spoken of a focus on the pitching staff and only looking at “complementary” position players, but he’s also said he hopes to return to the playoffs as soon as 2021.
Padres: We might as well get a little weird and round out the division-rival trifecta with an off-the-wall Padres suggestion. The Friars already have Manny Machado and his $300MM contract at third base and young superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. at shortstop. There were at least rumblings of potentially moving Tatis to the outfield in the event of a Francisco Lindor acquisition by the Padres, however. Adding Arenado would require an even more elaborate position shuffle, with Machado going back to shortstop and Tatis moving to the outfield grass. It’s a long shot that would likely require the Rockies taking a bad contract back — e.g. Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer — with the Padres chipping in some notable young talent. We’ve all learned by now not to count San Diego general manager A.J. Preller out of any scenario, but there’d be a whole lot of moving parts to get Arenado down to the Gaslamp Quarter.
Yankees: Like the Dodgers, the Yankees are almost an obligatory entrant in these types of exercises. They’re looking to pare back payroll this winter after spending at record levels in 2020, and their primary focus appears to be on retaining DJ LeMahieu. Arenado would be a luxury rather than a necessity — and a risky one at that — but the Yankees aren’t short on MLB-ready talent they could send back. Either of Gio Urshela or Miguel Andujar could appeal to the Rockies, and the team has some young pitching to work in as well. Arenado would be a tough fit with both Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton both on the books long-term, of course.
Cubs: It seems unlikely that the Cubs would take on a major contract after consecutive offseasons of effectively sitting out free agency. Owner Tom Ricketts has spent two years claiming not to have additional resources to allocate to the roster and earlier this summer proclaimed that ownership losses during the pandemic have been “biblical” in nature. The Cubs just laid off 100-some employees, per The Athletic. But they’re also expected to be active in reshaping the roster under new president of baseball ops Jed Hoyer, and they could jettison enough salary that cramming Arenado onto the books doesn’t seem impossible. Some combination of Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Yu Darvish and Willson Contreras could be moved this winter. Fitting Arenado into the picture still could be a stretch, though.
Red Sox: Boston already has Rafael Devers at the hot corner, but there’s been some speculation about him sliding across the diamond due to defensive struggles at third base. It’s admittedly tough to see the Red Sox taking on a contract like this less than one year after trading Mookie Betts and dumping David Price’s contract in order to limbo under the luxury tax line, but they’re a big-market team with huge payroll capabilities and probably don’t want to be a division afterthought for too long.
Mariners: Saving the most fun suggestion for last, let’s not overlook Jerry Dipoto’s ability to surprise the baseball world. “Trader Jerry” has rebuilt this organization’s farm system in a matter of two years and brought a number of interesting young players to Seattle — many of whom have now reached the Majors. Adding Arenado to an infield that already has two young Gold Glove winners in J.P. Crawford and Evan White would give the club a defense for the ages, and before anyone questions whether Seattle can afford to pay Arenado $33MM per year, consider that as of 2022, the only players on the books for the M’s are Marco Gonzales ($5.75MM) and White ($1.4MM). Bringing Arenado into the mix likely pushes Kyle Seager to designated hitter for the final year of his contract, which might be for the best given his declining defensive metrics.
That’s a whole lot of words on trading Arenado, but it’s important to remember that a deal coming together shouldn’t be considered a given. Arenado is not a Francisco Lindor-esque guarantee to be traded prior to Opening Day due to the complexity of his contract and the difficulty the Rockies will have getting what they’d deem fair value in return. Any of the highlighted teams at the end of this exercise could emerge as a rumored trade partner, though some are obvious reaches. In my view, the best clubs for the Rockies to work with are the Mets, Nationals, Dodgers, Blue Jays and, yes, the Mariners. That’s not to say any of those clubs are in talks or are likely to acquire him, however.
Of course, any trade depends on the extent to which those clubs believe Arenado can rebound from a mediocre year at the plate and the extent to which they’re willing to gamble on the glaring downside that is inherently woven into his contract. Trading Arenado isn’t as simple as some will make it out to be this winter, but it’s a reality the Rockies will have to explore.