The Cardinals and Rockies completed their Nolan Arenado megatrade Monday night after days of complex negotiations and approvals. The All-Star third baseman is headed east to St. Louis two weeks before the scheduled start of sprining training in a five-for-one swap.
Grading this transaction is simple: St. Louis wins the 2021 part in a rout, and there’s an excellent chance it will also come out ahead in the long term.
But there’s still the matter of explaining why we’ve come to that conclusion. Here’s the reasoning:
Nolan Arenado trade grades
Pretty straightforward, right? The Redbirds fill a dire need with a premier player, and at a modest cost.
Arenado’s fielding was again sublime in 2020: He posted 15 defensive runs saved, more than twice as many as the next-closest NL third baseman, the Padres’ Manny Machado, in winning his eighth Gold Glove in eight MLB seasons. He’s the ideal defensive replacement for Gold Glove second baseman Kolten Wong.
But it’s at the plate where the Cardinals will appreciate Arenado most. He averaged 40 home runs and 82 extra-base hits and posted a .937 OPS from 2015 through 2019 with the Rockies. His 2020 season was a bust (career-low 76+ OPS), but advocates can cite the twin excuses of a truncated season and a shoulder injury.
Critics, on the other hand, can cite a possible decline and bang on the fact that his career home-road splits are wide — .985 OPS at Coors Field, .793 outside Denver. But even that low end is a lot better than what the Cardinals have posted at the position in recent years. St. Louis sank further last season as Matt Carpenter (.640) and Tommy Edman (.685) both bottomed out. Edman is projected to move to second base and Carpenter can focus on being a utility player who gets close to everyday at-bats.
There is risk in this trade for the Cardinals. Arenado could decline physically in his Age 30 year, and he can opt out of his contract after the 2021 or 2022 seasons. The ’22 opt-out was one of the concessions that were made to get the deal done. Another concession was adding one year and $15 million guaranteed to the end of Arenado’s contract. He now has seven years and $214 million remaining on his pact. St. Louis is accepting the risk of it becoming a bad deal in its latter years.
First, start with Colorado’s front office assuming that 2021 would be Arenado’s walk year because of a reported strained relationship between the player and general manager Jeff Bridich. Then consider that it dealt him for what looks like pennies on the dollar.
Colorado received left-hander Austin Gomber and four minor leaguers: third baseman Elehuris Montero, right-handers Tony Locey and Jake Sommers and shortstop Mateo Gil. Montero slots into seventh on the Rockies’ top-30 prospect list, per MLB Pipeline. Locey is 15th, Gil is 22nd and Sommers isn’t even in the top 30.
Gomber, 27, is ready for a full-time big league role. He came back from shoulder and elbow ailments last year to post a 1.86 ERA in 29 innings. He made four strong starts late in the season, allowing one earned run over 15 2/3 innings. He can compete for a spot at the back of the rotation.
The other four are all wild cards. Montero, 22, hit .188 in half a season at Double-A in 2019 but is supposed to have power potential. Locey, 22, struck out 31 and walked 12 in 17 innings, all in relief, in ’19 after being drafted out of the University of Georgia that June. Gil, 20, and Sommers, 23, were both on track to play in Single-A last year before COVID-19 wiped out minor league ball.
That is a suboptimal return for a franchise cornerstone who’s in his late prime. What’s worse, Colorado accepted that package even though it’s reportedly paying $15 million of Arenado’s $35 million salary for 2021 and has promised to send St. Louis an additional $35 million-plus if Arenado opts in with the Cardinals after ’21.
Even with all that money going to St. Louis, the Rox didn’t get one of Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman or Matthew Liberatore, the Cardinals’ three repesentatives in MLB Pipeline’s top 100.
That’s poor management at every turn.