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The Arenado Paradox, or: A Clever Article I’ll Never Write

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A column partially about a trade, but mostly a column about the column.

Los Angeles Angels v Colorado Rockies Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

So here we are again. The Cardinals are reportedly pursuing a Colorado Rockies player who they have pretty clearly coveted for a number of years. It’s funny in a way how the Cards’ extended game of footsie with the Rockies in regards to Nolan Arenado is both reminiscent of their long-term and eventually consummated interest in Matt Holliday (though admittedly, Holliday was dealt to the A’s before ultimately ending up wearing the Birds on the Bat), and also their long-term interest in, well, Nolan Arenado. At this point, hearing the Cardinals are talking trade for the Colorado third baseman feels like an old friend calling, or a song from your teenage years coming from a car window.

This has been a strange offseason in a lot of ways, but maybe the strangest has been the creeping feeling that no one really wants to win, no one wants to do anything, and none of the moves we’re going to see will make a difference in the long run anyway. Maybe it’s just a side effect of the wasteland that was 2020, but apathy has, by and large, seemed to be the prevailing emotion amongst not just Cardinal fans, but baseball fans in general this offseason. A move like the sort that would bring Nolan Arenado to the Redbirds would, one would think, have to be met with something other than quiet, sullen apathy. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of move that should be met with dancing in the streets and possible lewd conduct arrests, right?

Well...

Probably. But maybe not. Or, at least, maybe it shouldn’t be. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

The above intro was, I’m sure you can gather, penned before the Cardinals actually went out and made the trade for Nolan Arenado with the Colorado Rockies. I suppose that, technically speaking, the trade still hasn’t been completed, with all sides waiting on various agreements and approvals to come through, but for all intents and purposes, the Cardinals have acquired Nolan Arenado. I started writing this column Thursday evening, got through the intro you just read, and then put it aside to think through the rest, with plans to publish this morning. I figured the Cards and Rockies had been dancing around a deal for a couple years at this point; I had plenty of time to get this piece put together before anything actually happened. (And, if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t really think this was going to happen at all, believing Colorado would stick to their demands for top prospects, and the Cardinals would stick to their process and refuse to part with said top prospects.)

Whoops.

This column I am currently writing is, in fact, the third version of an Arenado piece I’ve worked on now. On a side note, ‘worked on’ is a funny way of putting it; I basically either sit down when I have something to write about and just make up a column on the fly, or else I think about a piece, put it all together in my head while I’m doing something else, and then just sit down and type it up. What I mean to say is that ‘working on’ a piece looks, from the outside, an awful lot like someone just thinking about baseball while doing something else. (No, not that. I never think about baseball when I’m doing that, no matter how many rom-coms say it’s a good way to, um, calm things down.) Still, this is now version three of this column. Let me tell you about the past versions.

Version one was the column I was writing in my head after hearing that the Cards and Rockies were talking, and there was just enough smoke that it seemed legitimately worth paying attention to. This version was, I have to admit, my favourite, because I happen to think it was very clever and had a central conceit to it, which usually means the piece itself will end up being good. I can write a pretty decent article with no real thesis, simply applying my ideas and personality in a thick paste to these digital pages until it seems a good time to stop, and usually there will be a couple of decent points and a solid turn of phrase or two included, enough to make it a worthwhile read. (If I sound arrogant, it’s because I am, and also because after doing this for over a dozen years and writing a couple millions words about baseball I can absolutely bullshit my way through a 1500 word assignment even without an especially strong point of view to espouse.) However, it is undeniably preferable to have a central point going in, both in terms of the ease of composition and, usually, the end quality. (Not always, though; several of what I think back on as my most disappointing and frustrating pieces were strong theses that just resisted my attempts to get hold of them properly, ending up in a morass of either half-developed or over-explained supporting arguments. Those pieces tend to do a real number on one’s self-esteem.)

The hook of this particular article revolved around the fact that I thought Nolan Arenado was not a great trade target for the Cardinals to be pursuing. Yes, the offseason had been immensely frustrating so far, watching the Redbirds do absolutely nothing while the Central was just sitting there, begging to be won, but still, Arenado was not, I believed, the correct answer to the question of, “Where do we go to get our next title contending team?”

The reasoning was, I believe, pretty solid. The Cardinals of a few days ago were, it appeared, a club building toward their next contending club, waiting out their bad contracts (Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, even Carlos Martinez to a lesser degree), as the next big wave of talent from the minors marched ever closer to the big leagues. This club, I thought, would definitely need to make a couple big moves to push them over the top once Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore brought their super best friends bit to the majors, but for now, the waiting game seemed perfectly reasonable. I had argued earlier in the offseason for the Cards to make a move on Francisco Lindor and/or Ha-Seong Kim in order to jumpstart the project, but if they weren’t going to do something along those lines then standing pat and letting the contracts fall off before opening their next window was a fine alternative. Maybe not a satisfying alternative, mind you, but one that seemed reasonable.

Nolan Arenado will turn 30 years old this April, is coming off the worst season of his career (one impacted by a shoulder injury specifically, which could be a positive or a negative, depending on your perspective), and comes with an enormous contract extension the Rockies handed him barely two years ago as they pushed to make him the centerpiece and face of their franchise, believing they were on the cusp of serious contention. By the time the Gorman/Liberatore/Thompson wave of talent matriculates to the big leagues, Arenado will be 32, probably declining, blocking Gorman from his natural position, and eating up a huge chunk of payroll. The reason I was so high on the idea of Lindor or Kim was because both were 26 years of age or under, and made perfect sense as the early centerpiece moves for a 2022-’26 window.

Arenado, on the other hand, felt like the front office falling in love with a guy four years ago, then having an opportunity to acquire him and failing to recognise that the dude from four years ago is gone, or at least on his way down. It felt like the front office chasing a player they liked rather than anticipating who would be best to fit the club’s timeline. It felt like the Paul Goldschmidt deal all over again, only with a much worse contractual situation attached. Or the Dexter Fowler signing. Or Andrew Miller. The Cardinals are masters of acquiring great players two years past their sell-by dates, and Nolan Arenado in 2021 is a gallon of milk you get out of the fridge, open it, smell it, and decide that yeah, it’s still okay today, but you probably need to stop at the grocery store on the way home from work, because tomorrow it might be time to give the cats a treat, at best.

The central thesis of this column was this: to this point in the offseason, we had seen the Cardinals do absolutely nothing, and that fell on ownership. Bill DeWitt didn’t want to spend the money to make a big move with the club’s financials in such a questionable state, and the front office was willing to punt this offseason to clear the decks for a run beginning in ‘22 and ‘23. Yes, it was frustrating ownership was being cheap, but the front office was not being stupid. Chasing an Arenado deal, on the other hand, felt like the front office making a mistake, going after a player they shouldn’t be going after in spite of his obvious excellence, with ownership being willing to foot the bill.

This, then, was the paradox in the Arenado Paradox bit of the title. The Cardinals doing nothing meant ownership was cheap but the front office was smart. Chasing Arenado meant ownership was willing but the front office was dumb. We could feel better about the ownership part of the equation, but only at the expense of the front office part. That’s a really good central thesis, right? It’s clear, it’s concise, and it gets at the heart of the conflict of trying to decide if your team is cheap or dumb or both when they make moves that don’t improve the on-field product. I was really excited about that column.

Then, of course, news came down very late in the night that the Arenado to St. Louis deal was, in essence, done, and suddenly my column considering what the pursuit of Mr. Platinum Glove said about the front office no longer applied. Thus, I pivoted, and began mentally composing version 2.0 of this column.

Version 2.0 was, essentially, a reworking of 1.0, in which I posited that the front office had, once again, made a move that improved the short-term outlook of the club at the expense of longer-term and more meaningful success. Once again, the Dexter Fowler deal reared its head, as I prepared to both thrill to Nolan Arenado’s awesomeness in 2021 and ‘22 and bitterly excoriate the front office for trading away Nolan Gorman in 2024 when he was blocked by Other-Nolan, not to mention lament the prospects the Cardinals gave away to get Arenado and the huge sums of cash they were committing to him. The Cards were once again proving they wanted to contend year in and year out, but only on terms that didn’t force DeWitt and Co. to go that far outside their comfort zone. Yes, seeing them pony up the money for Arenado in 2021 was impressive considering the lost revenue of 2020 and the uncertainty of ‘21, but if you wanted to build something long term, a Lindor-type move was the answer, not 30 year old Other-Nolan with the potentially bum shoulder.

The problem with Version 2.0 was that, the more I thought about it, I couldn’t decide which direction to focus my ire. (Really, ‘ire’ is putting it way too strongly; I was pretty excited about Nolan Arenado actually being a Cardinal, but play along with me here for the sake of narrative structure, will you?) I felt like the club had made another short-sighted decision to prioritise constant contention without fully considering the future binds it could put them in. But was that a front office problem, or an ownership issue? Did Mo and Co. just not have the foresight to understand that this limits them down the road when they will undoubtedly want to do other things, the same way the five-year contract for Fowler led to the Tommy Pham trade, and the Randy Arozarena trade, and probably a playing time squeeze for Dylan Carlson and/or Tyler O’Neill in 2021, long past the date when Fowler should be a legitimate candidate for a starting job? Or was this DeWitt once again surveying the landscape and believing he had to do something to bring the rubes in the door so that his money-printing operation can continue as before? Was this a problem of philosophy, of the Cardinals never being willing to sacrifice the present for the future, but also being unwilling to go fully in on the present? Or was this a problem of execution, with the front office being overly enamoured of a great player on the edge of his greatness, still paying market price for wins that were in the past?

I’ll be honest: Version 2.0 of this column was not quite as strong as the first iteration, I don’t believe, simply because I felt it was lacking the cohesion. Version 1.0 had a statement at its core, even if that statement was conditional and a little complicated to think through. Version 2.0 had a question in the central position, and that makes the column a little harder to construct and, especially, drive home in memorable fashion. Version 2.0 would have needed a little more dressing-up to really sing the way 1.0 would have, I believe, which isn’t always the worst thing, but definitely increases the potential pitfalls.

A funny thing, happened, though, as I headed to work yesterday morning and continued to compose a baseball column in my head as I toiled away in the salt mines. (For the record, I do not actually work as an excavator of salt. It’s just an expression.) Details about the exact parameters of the trade began to trickle out and come into focus, and it was at that point that Version 2.0 of my column came crashing down, necessitating this final revised version which you are reading now.

Both previous versions of this column were predicated on the assumption that the Cardinals were pursuing a trade for Nolan Arenado which would cost them substantial prospects, because it had long been reported that’s what the Rockies were demanding, and would require them to take on nearly all of his contract. The Rockies have one of the best players in baseball, are looking to trade him, and they want good stuff in return. No, it’s not a good contract, but if you want the best defensive third baseman in the game you’re going to have to pay for him, damn it.

As it turns out, none of that ended up being true, and John Mozeliak’s poker face is apparently the greatest in the world. The Rockies are kicking in 50 million dollars of a $200 million contract, and the Cardinals are giving up three or four prospects, the best of whom is ranked number nine in the system by MLB.com and somewhere between eighth and eleventh on my my still-to-be-completed list.

And so, Version 3.0 of this column is essentially this: holyshitareyouseriousthecardsgotarenadoandfiftymillionbucksandtheygaveupwhat?

To be fair, many of the concerns I had in the earlier version of this column still do apply, at least to a certain extent. Arenado is still the same age (will play 2021 at 30), and still had a shoulder injury in 2020 which appears to have sapped his power in the batter’s box and led to the worst offensive season of his career. And, as part of the machinations regarding Arenado agreeing to both waive his no-trade clause and defer some money from his contract (exactly how much is not yet known), the Cardinals agreed to both add an extra opt-out following the 2022 season and tack on an extra year at $15 million to the end of his current deal. That means Arenado is now signed for seven years, through his age-36 season, at a total cost of roughly $214 million. That’s a lot of money, and a lot of years.

Somewhere in the VEB archives there is a column named after a really good Walkmen song in which I express serious doubts about giving Matt Holliday a seven year contract. Weirdly enough, now that I go back and read it, I either had to stop writing suddenly to do something else or decided I had already said my piece elsewhere, because there’s barely any column there. (And it’s not as if I was much less loquacious in those days, if you’re wondering.) I revisited that column during the 2014 season, a season that is, somewhat fittingly, nearly seven years ago now, and had much more to say at that time. (And oh, how I miss the VEB comments section of pre-2016, before the slack channel siphoned off so many long-time members and Vox’s model of three to four front page things a day made the site so much less of a hangout for people. Over eight hundred comments on that post.) Both times I came away with the conclusion that seven years is a very long time in baseball, and that is the time frame we are now looking at Nolan Arenado wearing a Cardinal uniform. (That 2014 column is also a fascinating time capsule looking back at a period when Oscar Taveras seemed so obviously to be a huge part of the franchise’s future.)

But then, of course, that’s not all the context, is it? The Cards are not looking at seven years and $214 million for Arenado, not really. The Rockies are paying $50 million of that, so it’s actually a seven year, $164 million deal the Redbirds just gave Arenado. Don’t get me wrong; $23 million a year is an enormous amount of money, more than I’ll ever see in my lifetime, and it’s certainly enough money to hurt the franchise’s spending muscle if things go badly with Nolan over the next few years. But you’re also talking about one of the two or three best third basemen in baseball on a deal that’s paying less AAV than George Springer just got earlier this winter.

And the Cardinals, for the privilege of rostering this great player for a discounted (though still high), salary, sent the Rockies a package of prospects highlighted by Jhon Torres. Now, I actually like Jhon Torres quite a bit, but if this were Last Week Tonight I would currently be talking about Jhon Torres in front of a picture of Edmundo Sosa, and telling you that’s how little you know about Jhon Torres. We don’t have the exact list of players included just yet due to the trade still being somewhat in limbo, but the names that have been mentioned are guys like Torres, Luken Baker, Jake Woodford, and Austin Gomber. Again, I think Austin Gomber is a very useful, solid pitcher. He is not the kind of player I would expect to be the best piece in a Nolan Arenado deal.

The night that the deal was reported as more or less final, our own expat Ben Clemens stayed up late and wrote about what Arenado’s future might look like over at FanGraphs. It was, as has always been the case with Ben’s pieces, quite good, and included some insta-Zips kung fu-ery courtesy of Dan Szymborski. The long and short of the article and attached projections is this: if Arenado’s 2020 represented a meaningful downturn in his abilities as a player, then he’s closer to an average hitter and strong defender than the future Hall of Famer he has appeared to be over the past seven years. If, however, you believe his 2020 numbers were a function of a shoulder injury which is now healed and a crazy pandemic season which will hopefully not be repeated, then he is once again probably something like a 5+ win player for the next year or two, and should be worth every penny the Cardinals will pay him. (Probably not the pennies Colorado pays him, but hey, we don’t care about their pennies here.)

And so that, ladies and gentlemen, is where Version 3.0 of this column ultimately lands. Nolan Arenado is still kind of an amazing player right now, and the Cardinals basically just made the Scott Rolen trade again. The issue there, of course, is that the average aging curve is so much different these days than it was in the heady days of 2002, but it’s also possible to believe Arenado might age like Matt Holliday, their last seven-year man and last big name ex-Rockie. Holliday was an excellent player all the way through that 2014 season, his age 34 year, before injuries took a toll on him the last two seasons of his contract. Scott Rolen himself was worth 4.6 wins at age 35 in 2010, though admittedly that came after a couple years of up and down performances following his own (much worse), shoulder injury in 2005.

The Cardinals have a new best player today, or will soon, and John Mozeliak and/or Michael Girsch look like absolute magicians. Versions one and two of this column might very well have had more meaningful things to say, but this one is, by far, the happiest. I can think of moves I would have rather seen the Cardinals make, but not many. And for what they gave up? Well, it’s hard to imagine they could have pulled off a bigger heist.