Years from now, what transpired in the baseball world on Jan. 29, 2021, will be remembered as the Friday Night Heist. The Cardinals held up the aimless Rockies for their best player, made Colorado fork over $50 million to cover their tracks and left behind an undisclosed bundle of mid-tier prospects for their troubles. Pleasure doing business.
Of course, the intricacies of the Nolan Arenado trade are far more complex than Wild West stagecoach robberies of Colorado lore. Among other things, the two teams still need to sort out: Arenado’s no-trade clause, his opt-outs (at least one, probably two), the deferred payments, a possible extension and the specific St. Louis farmhands heading to Denver. The league and the players association also have to get involved and sign off on the shakedown. The trade, first reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, likely won’t become official for a few days, but the framework of this blockbuster is brewed, with Arenado leaving the only team he's ever known.
The deal is yet another frustrating example of a billionaire owner sacrificing competitive integrity at the altar of the Efficiency Gods. It’s the third time within the last 12 months that a team has traded its homegrown star on a Hall of Fame trajectory because it callously and dubiously concluded that the face of its franchise would be more valuable playing for another team.
And yet, there are obvious differences between Colorado’s trading of Arenado and the deals that shipped Mookie Betts to Los Angeles and Francisco Lindor to Queens. The Red Sox easily could have afforded the 12-year, $365 million extension Betts signed with the Dodgers—Boston simply didn’t want to pay him that much. Cleveland, too, did not want to pay Lindor what he’d be worth on the open market, but at least the players it got in return for him could develop into strong contributors for its next winning team.
The Rockies, on the other hand, did pay Arenado a contract befitting baseball’s best third baseman, when they signed him to an eight-year, $260 million extension before the 2019 season—which briefly held the record for highest average annual value for a position player. The problem was they assured him they would commit to fielding a winning team around him—which requires spending more money—and then proceeded to cut costs and sign one major-league free agent, reliever José Mujica, over the next two offseasons. If the Rockies were commencing one of those tank-and-rebuilds, well, Arenado wanted no part of it.
“I want to win,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein last February. “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.”
In St. Louis, Arenado will win. The only team awake in a hibernating division, the Cardinals have added the impact bat they’ve so desperately needed over the past five years. And they’ve done so without taking anything away from their three greatest strengths: pitching, defense and a steady pipeline of young talent. None of the prospects named as probable pieces in Colorado’s return package rank among the top players in St. Louis' system. So, unless the final version of the deal is drastically different from what’s now being reported, the Cardinals will keep their No. 1 prospect, third baseman Nolan Gorman, and Jordan Walker, their first-round pick in the 2020 draft who is also a third baseman. Should Arenado exercise his opt-out clause after this season—or his additional opt-out that could be included in his reworked deal with the St. Louis after 2022—the Cardinals would have the hot corner covered.
Still, the Cardinals are planning on Arenado staying for the remaining six years of his contract. That’s why they roped the Rockies into paying them approximately $50 million, to help them cover the $199 million he’s owed. Since 2015, Arenado leads all third basemen in games played (835), hits (952), home runs (207) and OPS (.926). His 33.0 WAR over those six seasons ranks third in the majors—behind only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts—and first among third basemen.
Arenado is also one of the best defensive third basemen ever. He’s won the Gold Glove award in each of his eight seasons. He leads all active third basemen in fielding runs, and already ranks 11th all-time at the position.
There are concerns about how Arenado will perform without playing his home games at Coors Field. At the altitude-assisted hitters haven, he has a lifetime .985 OPS, well above his .793 road OPS. Yet, the more we learn about the disadvantages of playing half the season at Coors Field, the easier it is to envision Arenado thriving with his new team. Look at DJ LeMahieu’s production since leaving Colorado. He’s become one of the game's best offensive players with the Yankees.
Perhaps former slugger Matt Holliday is a better example of what to expect from Arenado with the Cardinals. As is the case now with Arenado, the Cardinals traded for Holliday knowing he could leave in free agency after the season. Holliday re-signed with St. Louis and the next year, he batted .312 with 28 home runs and 103 RBIs. He was 30, the same age Arenado will be this season. Over seven-plus years with St. Louis, Holliday posted a 138 OPS+ and led the Cardinals to two NL pennants (2011, ‘13) and one World Series title (‘11).
Now, with Arenado and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt anchoring the St. Louis infield and hitting in the middle of the order, the Cardinals have capitalized on what was already a winnable NL Central. Their pitching staff is deep, with ace Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright leading the rotation and a daunting bullpen to follow them, and franchise icon Yadier Molina is expected to re-sign soon. Switch-hitting outfielder Dylan Carlson, their best young player since the late Oscar Taveras, is entering his first full season in the majors. Shortstop Paul DeJong is one of the game’s more underrated players.
Arenado’s beef with the Rockies was that they were not in position to contend, and the organization had no feasible plan to do so. It’s a shame to see a major league organization as clueless as Colorado.
But somehow, under the maddeningly misguided direction of owner Dick Monfort and GM Jeff Bridich, the Rockies have gifted Arenado and most of us in the baseball world what we’ve wanted all along: to see one of the best third baseman in the playoffs for years to come.