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What would a Nolan Arenado trade look like?

Several different proposals for Nolan Arenado

Colorado Rockies v San Francisco Giants Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

The rumors that the Cardinals are interested in Nolan Arenado appear to be ramping up. It is an odd fit, but a fit that would represent acquiring an elite player. Elite players are essentially the only thing the Cards are missing and have been missing for a while. While players have had individual seasons of being elite (5+ WAR), there hasn’t been a player who has consistently been able to do so for the Cardinals since... it can’t possibly be Albert Pujols can it?

In any case, the point remains. The Cardinals could use an elite player. They attempted to do so last offseason, but Paul Goldschmidt very quickly declined and probably isn’t that player anymore since he’s already 32. Arenado would probably not have the same issues, seeing as he will be 29 next season. Okay, it makes sense the Cardinals are interested. Does a trade make sense?

Well, that’s a complicated question. Any discussion of trade cannot possibly ignore his contract which is basically market value. He also has an opt-out in two years, an opt-out he is somewhat likely to take given the structure of his deal. So it’s a two-year investment with a lot more downside than a two year investment usually has.

Let’s connect the salary to projections. The Rockies team ZiPS is thankfully posted already, and they have him with a 4.5 WAR projection. If that seems low, that’s how projections work. I’m however going to combine it with Steamer. Projection systems as a whole seem to vary in predictiveness year-to-year, but if you take every possible reliable projection system and combine them together, they’ve proven to be the most reliable. With Steamer’s 4.9, Arenado’s projected WAR for 2020 is 4.7 WAR.

I’m going to be operating under the assumption that a win is worth $9 million, so he projects to be worth $42.3 million in 2020. The standard for rough estimates such as this is to decline 0.5 WAR for every successive season, so the projected 2021 WAR is 4.2 and projected monetary value is $37.8. That means, for the next two years, his surplus value is $10.1 million.

At this point, Arenado would have the choice to opt-out, and he would need to see if he can do better than 5 years, $164 million going into his age 31 season. He might opt out, but if he follows the trajectory of these projections, he’s not getting that if he’s expected to be a 3.7 WAR player in 2022. For the purposes of this post, we will be assuming he opts out. If we assume he won’t opt out, his surplus value is essentially neutral, because he’s getting market value on his contract overall, but the back end is clearly negative. And frankly, there’s no trade if we assume Arenado is a net zero of surplus value.

It’s here where I have to put this potential trade in the context of this offseason. Because Arenado’s contract going forward is indistinguishable from the contract that Anthony Rendon just got. Rendon is a better player than Arenado - he was last year and he has a better projection. Im going to assume the Cardinals are able to think logically and didn’t sign him for financial reasons - because if they want to trade for Arenado, why the hell didn’t they go after Rendon and not have to lose prospects?

So presumably, the Cardinals would need to send over a player with a contract of some note. Paul Goldschmidt probably has too much committed for a team interested in shedding money, Miles Mikolas’s value to the 2020 Cardinals is too high to trade, and Yadier Molina is never getting traded. That leaves Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Andrew Miller, Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong with salaries over $10 million. Wong makes no sense, since his surplus value over the next two years is $17.75 million (yes, he has an option, but as of now, it’s a guarantee to be accepted), so the Rockies would either need to accept him straight up (never happening) or the Cards would need to add on additional bad money, which negates the entire point of trading for Arenado.

Carlos Martinez might make sense, but I definitely think the Rockies would be put off by the uncertainty he represents. I don’t even have a projection to know his surplus value since Steamer has him in the bullpen. If the Rockies trade for him, they’re trading for him as a starter, and he’s at worst most of the way to the $10.1 million, meaning a trade for Carlos would include maybe a B prospect with him. So Proposal 1: Carlos Martinez and Lane Thomas.

Andrew Miller is projected for 0.7 WAR by Steamer - pretty optimistic actually! - with a 2021 vesting option that will happen, barring a long injury for Miller. So given his contract, that’s $-15.4 million in surplus value, which would rise the prospect package to $25.5 million. According to the value chart provided by Craig Edwards, that’s a little bit less than a top 100 position player prospect with a future grade of 50. Knizner was the 101st prospect by Fangraphs and has a future value of 50. His stock probably went down ever so slightly with his 2019, so he’s pretty much perfect and the Rockies looove relievers. Proposal 2: Andrew Miller and Andrew Knizner.

Dexter Fowler has a marginally better projection - 0.9 WAR. With $29 million owed the next two years, he’s a net negative of $17.3 million. So that’s now $27.4 million. That’s a little more valuable than Knizner, but the Cardinals next two highest prospects are Dylan Carlson and Nolan Gorman and let’s say both are 55 position player prospects (Carlson pre-2019 is 50, but I think he definitely has risen). They are worth $46 million, so not particularly close. Tyler O’Neill was a 50 future value prospect, and for practical purposes, he’s still a prospect. But he’s lost a year of team control, so instead of being worth $28 million, let’s say he’s worth $23 million. I’ll add Zack Thompson, a 45 FV pitching prospect ($4 million). Proposal 3: Dexter Fowler, Tyler O’Neill, Zack Thompson.

There is a natural problem with the trades above though: any trade that doesn’t involve another infielder means Matt Carpenter and Tommy Edman are the bench players with little route to playing time. Now maybe you’re okay with this, but do the Cardinals seem like the type of team to sit a player like Carpenter? I would argue no. It would also relegate Edman to playing RF for 100+ games, since whenever the starters needed to sit, Carpenter would probably be the choice (except for SS).

So a trade for Carpenter clearly makes the most sense, except that he has a no trade clause. And I can’t read Carpenter’s mind, but I do not think he’d accept a trade to the Rockies. The appeal is that he’s going to a 71 win team that is giving up its best player. He will be replacing the best player. Being the best player on a bad, non-playoff team is something he’s familiar with, but most routes for him lead to him being representative of everything that’s wrong with the Rockies front office, and thus hated. (Fowler has a NTC too, except it seems like a much easier sell given he used to play for the Rockies, plus you could hammer home that he won’t get much playing time here anymore)

But let’s assume he accepts a deal, which I got to say: huge, huge assumption here guys. But let’s pretend this is a plot hole in a Christopher Nolan movie, ignore it and make this work. Carpenter is projected for 2 WAR in 2020 by Steamer thanks to only 540 PAs. His vesting option is easy to avoid, and requires a $2 million buyout, so his surplus value is $-7.5 million. That puts the prospect value at just $17.6 million, which leaves out a lot of major prospects, so we’re going to need to go with the Ozuna trade approach here.

And oooh boy does this one involve a lot of players. Arozarena was a 40 FV prospect before 2019, but given his 2019 performance, I feel comfortable giving him the value of a 45 FV prospect, which for a positional player is $8 million. I’m going to throw Thompson here as well, as he’s basically the only pitching prospect with any real trade value. And I’ll also give them a potential replacement for Carpenter in Elehuris Montero. That’s still only $16 million, so I’ll throw the MLB ready Junior Fernandez as the final piece. He was a 40 FV pitching prospect, which was only worth $1 million, but I figure his 2019 raised his profile to make up the $0.6 million I’m off and then some. So Proposal 4: Matt Carpenter, Elehuris Montero, Zack Thompson, and Randy Arozarena for Nolan Arenado.

And of course, if the Rockies were to insist on Nolan Gorman or Dylan Carlson, they’d have to throw in money. With both being worth $46 million, the Rockies would need to throw in $36 million. Which they obviously wouldn’t do over the next two years. So you could potentially get creative here and have them agree to pay money after the opt out years. Bear with me here, because this could get confusing. So Arenado’s contract post opt-out is 5 years, $164 million. Given slight inflation on the dollars per WAR, that’d be essentially paying him to be worth 17.5 WAR over the five years. In order to do that, he’d need to be a 4.5 WAR player going into 2022, not totally implausible.

But presumably, he’d have to be better than that to opt out, no? So let’s set the bar at 4.6 WAR for him to opt out. If he projects for 4.6 WAR in 2022, I’ll do the reverse of the +0.5 rule and assume he needs to be worth 5.6 WAR in 2020 and 5.1 WAR in 2021. Which would be worth $96.3 million over the next two years, or a surplus value of $26.3 million with Arenado’s current contract. That still leaves $20 million to cover, but since Gorman is unlikely to contribute in the next two years, let’s knock that to half price just for the next two years. That requires the Rockies to throw in $5 million for 2020 and 2021. And we still have $26 million to cover, and guess what? Very conveniently, that comes out to $5 million per year. So Proposal #5 is Nolan Arenado + $5 million per year for Nolan Gorman (Carlson will be up in 2020, so I’d say he’s a nonstarter here)

So do you feel any of these trades are realistic? And would you accept any of them? Would the Rockies more importantly?