Uncertainty surrounding Nolan Arenado’s future with the Rockies has become one of the prevailing storylines of the offseason, given the perennial MVP candidate’s recent expression of discontent with the organization — general manager Jeff Bridich in particular. Recent drama notwithstanding, however, Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post writes in his latest mailbag that a trade prior to spring training is “highly unlikely,” citing multiple sources.
Saunders notes (as others have suggested) that a summer trade of Arenado will become quite a bit more plausible if the Rockies don’t play well in the first half. Any trade involving Arenado, he adds, would need to center around an established Major Leaguer coming back to the Rockies in addition to multiple high-end prospects; owner Dick Monfort is not interested in simply clearing salary.
That line of thinking clashes with an afternoon report from ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers, who during a radio appearance on ESPN 1000 indicated that the Rockies and Cubs have at some point “discussed a one-for-one deal, Kris Bryant for Nolan Arenado,” with the Rockies absorbing substantial salary. Perhaps that’s a scenario to which the Cubs are amenable, but Rogers himself even made a point to later indicate he doesn’t expect a deal to come together and to stress (on Twitter) the distinction between something that’s “been discussed” and active trade talks.
Cubs fans have obviously taken a particular interest in that rumored exchange, but taking a step back and looking at the whole picture, it’s hard to imagine how such a deal would appeal to the Rockies or fit within the budgetary constraints under which both teams have been operating — let alone both. Even if the Rockies were to absorb the $7-8MM annually that Rogers suggests, the Cubs would still be adding $8-9MM to their luxury tax commitment.
Chicago already projects to be about $6.5MM north of the $208MM luxury barrier (per Roster Resource), so taking on that portion of that Arenado deal would push their luxury line into the $223MM range. That’s within striking distance of the $228MM point at which the second tier of penalization begins, which would leave the Cubs with minimal room for in-season additions. That could also become problematic if some of the non-roster players in camp earn spots on the MLB roster and start locking in the salaries on those deals. Players like Brandon Morrow ($1.25MM) and Hernan Perez ($1MM) will push that number north if they break camp with the team. And, of course, other players on the team have incentives in their contracts that can further elevate the number.
None of that sounds like much for the Cubs of years past, but they’ve been a much different team in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 offseasons. The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma even reported back in December that the Cubs had interest in lefty reliever Alex Claudio but would’ve needed to clear some money to sign him, so he instead went to the Brewers on a one-year, $1.75MM deal. In total, the Cubs have signed off on $1.85MM in guaranteed salary to free agents this winter. Suddenly taking on Arenado and his nearly $34MM annual salary — even with the Rockies including cash — would be a radical about-face.
To this point, we’ve only looked at things from the Chicago organization’s point of view — but the Rockies obviously need to be considered as well. From their vantage point, the primary function of the rumored Bryant/Arenado swap would be salary relief — the very type of deal to which Monfort is opposed, per Saunders. Even if they sought to immediately reinvest some of those savings, the free-agent market has been mostly picked over. And looking purely at the optics, how should the Rockies plan to sell to their fan base that they’re paying Arenado $8MM annually to play elsewhere, with the return being a very good but lesser replacement at the hot corner?
The timing of Arenado’s comments and Bryant’s service-time resolution will surely link the two for the remainder of the offseason or until a transaction involving one of the two (likelier Bryant) takes place. A team interested in adding a potent bat to the lineup and/or improving at third base will explore trade scenarios involving both players, and it’s certainly possible that even the Cubs and Rockies themselves could explore a more layered swap involving multiple pieces. But the Rockies began the offseason by declaring a lack of payroll flexibility, and similar sentiments from the Cubs have been readily apparent since the onset of free agency. Drawing up a scenario that works financially for both parties without significantly worsening either roster is extremely difficult, and even that would assume that the Rockies are motivated to move Arenado — which Saunders stresses not to be the case.
Suffice it to say: there are innumerable intricacies involved when trying to draw up realistic trade scenarios involving players of this stature and this level of compensation. Both are likely to continue to circulate the rumor mill, but it’s immensely difficult to envision both changing hands in the same transaction.