Image credit: Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado is one of a multitude of major leauge stars who was born and raised in California.
When a team trades for a star position player in his prime, it rarely ends up regretting the prospect cost.
Giancarlo Stanton has been hampered by injuries, but none of the players the Yankees traded to the Marlins have come back to haunt them. Early returns on the Paul Goldschmidt trade look good for the Cardinals. And even though it’s only been one season, and an abbreviated one at that, It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Dodgers ever regret their trade for Mookie Betts.
The Cardinals acquisition of Nolan Arenado from the Rockies for lefthander Austin Gomber and four prospects was the latest trade of that ilk. On a micro level, it solidified the Cardinals as the team to beat in the National League Central and put the Rockies on the path to a rebuild, despite any statements to the contrary.
But on a larger scale, and perhaps more significantly, it marked a new low in the cost to acquire a star position player.
The Cardinals acquired arguably the best third baseman in baseball without trading away any of their best young major leaguers or any of their Top 10 prospects. What’s more, the Rockies even kicked in $50 million to cover a portion of Arenado’s contract. If Arenado opts out of his contract after 2021, St. Louis will end up not paying any of Arenado’s salary for his time in a Cardinals uniform.
Even in the context of an era where teams prioritize financial flexibility and years of team control, with talent seemingly a secondary consideration, the cost to acquire Arenado was miniscule.
“When we have had an opportunity to get premium players we’ve made every opportunity to get them,” Cardinals chairman Bill Dewitt Jr. said. “One thing we do know is premium players continue to be premium players. This was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up and had thought about awhile.”
The Rockies largely put themselves in this position.
All signs pointed to Arenado opting out of his contract with the Rockies after the 2021 season. He had made his displeasure with the club’s direction abundantly clear, his relationship with general manager Jeff Bridich had publicly deteriorated and his desire to win was at odds with the reality that the Rockies are coming off back-to-back fourth-place finishes and have made no substantive moves to improve the last two offseasons.
The Rockies were forced to operate as if Arenado only had one year left on his contract because, for all intents and purposes, the 2021 season was going to be his last in Colorado.
“He told us he wanted to be traded,” Rockies owner Dick Monfort said. “So our assumption was that he would opt out.”
That dynamic was always going to limit the trade return the Rockies were going to get for Arenado. Almost anything another team offered would be more enticing to the Rockies than the prospect of letting Arenado leave in free agency after the season and getting only a single draft pick as compensation.
But that’s hardly an unprecedented dynamic. Even compared to the trades of other star position players whose teams faced the same situation, the Rockies received a pittance.
For Goldschmidt, who had one year left on his contract when he was traded in December 2018, the D-backs received a young major leaguer who was formerly a Top 100 prospect (Luke Weaver), one Top 100 prospect (Carson Kelly), one player who ranked in the No. 10-20 prospect range of his team’s farm system (Andy Young) and a draft pick.
For Betts, whose impending free agency was the impetus behind Boston moving him, the Red Sox received a young major leaguer who was formerly a Top 100 prospect (Alex Verdugo), one Top 100 prospect (Jeter Downs) and one player who ranked in the No. 10-20 prospect range in the team’s system (Connor Wong). That return included the Dodgers taking on David Price’s contract, as well.
This offseason, for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, the Indians received a young major leaguer who was formerly a Top 100 prospect (Amed Rosario), one Top 100 prospect (Andres Gimenez) and two players who ranked in the No. 11-20 range in the team’s system (Josh Wolf and Isaiah Greene).
The price for an elite position player who could potentially leave in a year was clear: one young major leaguer who was formerly a Top 100 Prospect, one current Top 100 prospect, one prospect in the 10-20 range of a team’s system and one other piece, whether that be another prospect, a draft pick or taking on additional salary.
The Rockies not only didn’t get that return for Arenado. They barely got a single component of it.
The Rockies did not receive a young major leaguer who was once a Top 100 prospect, despite the Cardinals having four on their pitching staff alone. They did not receive a single current Top 100 prospect, despite the Cardinals having three of those, as well. The third and fourth pieces of the deal were not players who ranked in the Nos. 10-20 range in the Cardinals system, but in the 20-30 range.
Gomber, a 27-year-old swingman, represents the most accomplished player Colorado received. Third baseman Elehuris Montero, the Cardinals No. 14 prospect, was the best prospect the Rockies could pluck from St. Louis in exchange for the face of their franchise.
“Do you want to take a draft pick at the end of the year if he would opt out? Or do you want to take your chance with five guys that sort of, at least three or four of them, fit in the same type of caliber that you’d get from that draft choice?” Montfort said. “That was the decision. It was a difficult decision the whole time, but that’s what went into our thinking.”
The opt-out in Arenado’s contract complicated matters. But even if you look at him not as a player who could leave in a year but one who had six years and $199 million remaining on his contract with an opt-out, the Rockies still fall short.
While there aren’t many direct parallels, the Stanton trade is worth examining. The slugger was due more money than Arenado, with 10 years and $295 million remaining on his contract with an opt-out, when the Marlins traded him to the Yankees in December 2017.
For Stanton, the Marlins received an established, everyday infielder in his 20s (Starlin Castro), a Top 100 prospect at the time (Jorge Guzman) and an additional prospect who ranked in the No. 20-30 range of his team’s farm system (Jose Devers).
The Marlins, three years later, have received little from that package. Castro was solid for two seasons before leaving in free agency. Guzman and Devers are still climbing the minors (Guzman did make his major league debut in 2020 with one appearance.)
Like the other trade returns, it was still significantly more than what the Rockies received for Arenado.
“In dealing with this, we tried to find a way that we could get the greatest return possible,” Monfort said. “…There were many teams that we talked to, and there were many deals that made no sense.”
That this was the deal that made the most sense for the Rockies may be a product of the times, although their own missteps certainly didn’t help. Competitive teams are shedding stars—or making no genuine effort to re-sign them—in an attempt to cut payroll after a season with no fans in the stands due to the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer teams each year are actively trying to win, limiting the competition for a player of Arenado’s caliber.
For teams like the Cardinals, though, that just means they have a unique opportunity to acquire elite players at a minimal cost. It was already a winning proposition for teams to pay the “market” rate for a star position player in a trade.
Now, if the Arenado deal was any indication, it’s never been cheaper for a team to acquire an elite position player.
“With the addition of Nolan, we think we went from a good to great team,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. “…When you look at all the things we possibly could have done this offseason, clearly our target was Nolan and we were able to get it. We hope it is a difference-maker.”