New Year’s is one of my favorite holidays of all. This might be a hot take, but there is something I love about the sense of a fresh start with renewed goals – not to mention plenty of festivities to usher it in. In that celebratory vein, allow me to ring in the new year with a belated gift – a wet blanket.
There has been much speculation, which was supported to some extent by MLB Network’s Jon Morosi, that the Braves might pursue a trade for Nolan Arenado if they lose out on the Josh Donaldson sweepstakes. Here are three reasons I don’t think that will happen:
If the Braves are willing to pay an elite third baseman in his late-20’s $200+ million over seven years, why didn’t they pursue Anthony Rendon more aggressively in free agency?
This has been the point I can’t get past since these Arenado rumors started. The Braves could have paid roughly the same for Rendon without having to give up a single prospect. Compare Rendon’s recently-inked contract with the Angels to what is remaining on Arenado’s contract:
Rendon’s contract with Angels: seven years, $245 million, full no-trade clause, no opt-out
Arenado’s remaining contract: seven years, $234 million, full no-trade clause, opt out after 2021
To be fair, the price for Rendon might have been higher if the Braves were aggressive along with the Angels. However, there has been no indication that the Braves were pursuing Rendon seriously (beyond an obligatory “check in”). Granted, the Braves’ front office is very tight-lipped, but Rendon’s agent, Scott Boras, is the best in the game and is no stranger to leaking teams’ interest in his clients to drive up the price. Additionally, Boras having one of his biggest clients signing in December further indicates that there was one team that was clearly the most aggressive in their pursuit.
The contract comparisons and value over the next seven seasons for Rendon and Arenado are strikingly similar. Rendon is only 10 months older than Arenado, and both are elite third basemen, even if their strengths are different. Arenado’s elite defense suggests that his floor might be higher over the next seven seasons. However, Rendon has produced more value the past three seasons (19.9 fWAR vs. Arenado’s 17.3) and is projected to produce more value in 2020 by Steamer (5.6 fWAR vs. Arenado’s 4.9). Therefore, Rendon’s value might be more front-loaded, but the overall value over the next seven seasons could be very close (and hence why their contracts are so similar).
Arenado’s contract clauses
There are two provisions in Arenado’s contract that would be significant hurdles in any potential trade – a full no-trade clause and an opt-out after the 2021 season. Obviously, the no-trade clause is a huge obstacle, as Arenado could be traded only if he’s willing to waive it. Arenado just made a long-term commitment to the Rockies less than a year ago. If he wanted out of Colorado, he could’ve become a free agent. Additionally, Arenado is from out west, growing up in California and committing to Arizona State for college before ultimately being drafted. Perhaps Arenado likes it in Colorado and has no interest in moving further away from his family and starting anew in Atlanta – a place different from California or Colorado.
The opt-out clause further complicates any potential trade. At a minimum, it makes the trade much more difficult to evaluate. Are the Braves trading for a two-year, $70 million commitment, or a seven-year, $234 million commitment? The answer to the question likely cannot be known at the time of the trade and significantly alters the fabric of the deal. (The Braves might insist on trying to negotiate a waiver of the opt-out with Arenado before any trade, but Arenado must really want to play for the Braves badly to waive that opt-out.) Look no further than Stephen Strasburg this offseason to see why an elite player would opt out of a lot of money to get even more money.
The Rockies’ front office
To put it mildly, the Rockies’ front office lately has been subpar. As FanGraphs’ Dan Syzymborski recently said, the Rockies’ front office is “like a good 1985 front office.” Ouch. While the Rockies organization has developed talent like Arenado and Trevor Story well, they have struggled to make the necessary moves to fill out their roster into a serious contender. Expectations were high coming into the 2019 season after a 91-win season and playoff berth in 2018. Prior to the season, the Rockies locked up their franchise third baseman on an eight-year deal, and everything was rosy in Denver. Several analysts that are paid real money for their baseball opinions even predicted that the Rockies would top the Dodgers for the 2019 NL West title:
However, things didn’t go as planned for the Rockies in 2019. They essentially flipped their record from the prior season, ending with just 71 wins and a fourth-place finish in the division (a mere 35 games behind the Dodgers). Further, the Rockies are saddled with some bad contracts to guys in the mid-30’s, notably Charlie Blackmon, Ian Desmond, and Wade Davis, who are still owed a total of $137 million. Obviously, this does not bode well for the Rockies GM Jeff Bridich’s job security, which tangentially decreases the likelihood of Arenado being traded, in my opinion. Trading the face of your franchise who you just gave a massive extension to is typically not a popular move among fanbases. Self-preservation is likely to kick in for Bridich, which makes me believe that the Rockies are likely to give their current core one final run in 2020 instead of starting the inevitable rebuild.
Even if the Rockies are genuinely open to moving Arenado, the prospect price is likely to be very high. After all, the only thing that can cushion the blow of losing your franchise player is getting a haul of top prospects. However, during his tenure as the Braves’ GM, Alex Anthopoulos has not yet been willing to part with top prospects nor pay for big, long-term contracts for players that span well into their 30s, and he would be required to do both in one transaction to land Arenado. Certainly, the Rockies could send cash with Arenado, but that’s only going to increase their demand for prospects. Further, Bridich has been utterly awful at valuating major league talent, most notably in free agency, and making a blockbuster with a GM whose valuations are so skewed can prove difficult.
Perhaps there is some common ground. If the Braves were to get Arenado, Austin Riley would become much more expendable, with Arenado manning third base for potentially the next seven seasons and Ronald Acuña, Jr., Cristian Pache, and Drew Waters under cheap control in the outfield for a long time. A package around Riley and a mid-level prospect might be enough for the Rockies to justify trading Arenado away... But don’t hold your breath.
To end on a positive note, I continue to believe that the Braves will work things out with Donaldson. The more time that passes, the more it seems clear that there isn’t an offer on the table that is clearly superior to the others. There isn’t another shoe that needs to drop, a la Bryce Harper and Manny Machado last offseason. Both sides seem to want a reunion, and it is hopefully just a matter of time.