SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Rockies and their All-Star third baseman, Nolan Arenado, had an ugly offseason, but the offseason is over—and so, at least for now, is the ugliness. After weeks spent airing grievances over the team’s failure to improve its roster, Arenado spoke with team owner Dick Monfort for about 30 minutes recently, according to people familiar with the exchange. Monfort assured him that Colorado was open to adding pieces during the season.
Arenado does not want to comment on the conversation, but in an interview with Sports Illustrated, he says he now feels more confident in his team’s future.
“I have to be optimistic,” he says. “I’m not gonna be moping around. That doesn’t bring out the best in me or these guys. I don’t want to be a bad leader. I don’t want to complain anymore. It would be counterproductive.”
What he does not say is that he has few options at this point. If he continues to push, he risks making himself and his teammates miserable. It’s one thing to complain in the offseason, but it’s hard to talk about wanting out when every day you have to be in.
Arenado has leveled barbs at the Rockies in print since last month, when after a winter’s worth of trade rumors GM Jeff Bridich told The Denver Post that he would not move his third baseman. Arenado responded and said that he felt “disrespected” by the team. (Bridich has largely declined comment on their disagreements, although he said Tuesday, “I like that our players expect us to be good.” He also said he hasn't met with Arenado since spring training began.)
Now Arenado says he regrets airing his anger publicly—but he does not regret his anger.
“I want to win,” he says. “If we win here, that’s why I signed, right? To win here. But if we’re not gonna win, I’d rather play for a winner. I don’t care where it is. I’d rather win a World Series than have my number retired.”
Fifty weeks ago, he believed he could have both. He signed an eight-year, $260 million extension with Colorado, the team that chose him in the second round of the 2009 draft. He dreamed of a parade down 17th Street in Denver and a Cooperstown plaque bearing the interlocked C and R. He wanted to leave a legacy for the only franchise he has ever known.
Then the same Rockies who had made the playoffs in 2017 and ’18 went 27–51 after June, a 106-loss pace over a full season. They grumbled and pointed fingers. They finished fourth in the NL West at 71–91, a game out of last place.
Baseball players often compliment one another by saying, “He never gets too high or too low.” No one has ever said that about Arenado. He tethers his mood to his team’s performance, sulking for days during a losing streak and celebrating each victory as if he had never before won a game. He knew he could not endure one of the tank-and-rebuilds that are so in vogue these days, so he secured a promise before he signed the extension that the Rockies would try to contend every year.
This winter, he wondered if perhaps he and his bosses disagree about the meaning of that word. The front office thinks players who struggled last season can bounce back. Arenado finds that idea overly optimistic.
He spent his offseason reading about the moves his division rivals made: The last-place Padres signed lefty Drew Pomeranz and traded for outfielder Tommy Pham; the third-place—and mid-rebuild—Giants signed righty Kevin Gausman; the second-place Diamondbacks signed lefty Madison Bumgarner; the Dodgers traded for rightfielder Mookie Betts and lefty David Price. The Rockies made no trades and spent zero dollars on big-league free agents.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t win,” he says. “It’s just that when you see [a big move], it’s like, Whoa. If I was the Dodgers—just an example—if I see us get Mookie Betts, that gets me excited. Like in ’17, we got [catcher Jonathan] Lucroy and [righty Pat] Neshek. It felt good to get those two guys! And then in ’18 at the break we got [righty] Seunghwan Oh. … We need that boost of, ‘Hey, we’re still in this.’ I know we had a bad year, but let’s go do something.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Asked what moves he would have made, Arenado gestures vaguely at trading prospects. “Obviously you’re not gonna go for Gerrit Cole, and I get that,” he says, referring to the righty the Yankees signed in December for nine years and $324 million. The Rockies’ payroll sits near $150 million, ranking in the middle of the league but the highest in franchise history. That figure is bloated by bad contracts: three years and $52 million to reliever Wade Davis, five years and $70 million to centerfielder Ian Desmond, three years and $27 million to reliever Jake McGee. Those players combined for -3.4 WAR last season.
Six members of the starting lineup and three members of the rotation are homegrown; as they age, they become more expensive. And, of course, the team owes Arenado himself $35 million this year. One way to rebuild might be to trade him.
In the meantime, he is a Rockie. His teammates and coaches say they support him. He vows to continue displaying the work ethic that makes him the butt of so many of their jokes: He will occasionally rise from the dinner table between bites and adjust his swing. He could have his mail forwarded to the batting cage. Until last month, the team’s major concern about him was his penchant for spending his off-days at Coors Field, taking BP.
“We only have one chance at this,” Arenado says. “I want to be a champion. The only experience I’ve had in the playoffs, I haven’t been a very good player there, and I want to redeem myself. I want to do it, I want to be there and I want to play in October. I want to be on primetime TV. I want that experience, because that was the best time of my life, the times we got to October. … I’m only getting older. I’m only 28, I know that’s not old, but Jesus, I’ve got seven years left and I don’t know who’s gonna want me after that.”
Détentes don’t always last. In situations like these, a bad stretch of play can erode good will. Or a win streak can cheer everyone up. And looming over everything is the provision in Arenado’s contract that allows him to opt out after the 2021 season.
Arenado still believes everything he said about wanting to play for a winner. But he is willing to give the Rockies a chance to be that winner.