By Kevin Reynolds
The Colorado Rockies and the St. Louis Cardinals are neck-and-neck in the NL Wild Card race. If St. Louis hopes to ride a rejuvenated roster to the postseason with interim skipper Mike Shildt at the helm, they’ll have to dispose of the west-side bombers first. If successful, the Cardinals’ prize may be more than just a postseason birth.
They may win themselves a franchise third baseman.
Many call Nolan Arenado the best player in the National League. His .307 batting average, 29 home runs, and .585 slugging percentage all fall easily into the NL’s top 10, two of them in the top five. And only Matt Carpenter‘s 32 home runs bests Arenado’s knocks. Throw in the fact that he’s probably the best third baseman the senior circuit’s seen since Scott Rolen, and it’s no surprise to find his 4.8 WAR (Fangraphs) drafting Carpenter’s 4.9 WAR for the top two spots in the league.
But if forced to play the entirety of his season at third base, as Arenado has, there’s little doubt that the Cardinals’ leadoff hitter would give way to the Rockies’ star.
Still, It’s fitting that the two play their best baseball while holding down opposite sides of the infield, Arenado earning another start at third base for the NL All-Star team this season, and Carpenter managing to look like a plus defender at first for the suddenly surging Redbirds. They do, after all, find themselves at opposite ends of their careers as well.
At 32 years old, Carpenter is eying the decline phase of his playing days, surely just over the horizon now. With one guaranteed year left on his contract, the Cardinals hold an $18.5 million team option for 2020. A then-34-year-old ballplayer should be so lucky, even one with the surprisingly broad, team-carrying shoulders of Carpenter.
But the 27-year old Arenado, a little over a year away from testing the golden waters of free agency, is just getting started. Where Arenado is looking to cash in, players of Carpenter’s ilk value stability and consistency. The peace of mind to build a garden in his backyard and know that for at least 81 home games a year, he’ll actually be there to tend it.
But veteran players like Carpenter also value one more thing, something in short supply as they enter the twilight of their playing days.
That’s where the two NL MVPs can find common ground, even if they arrived there by different means.
Carpenter has played in his fair share of postseason games (39), reaching three National League Championship Series (NLCS), one World Series (2013), and a handful of lesser October contests. But despite making his major-league debut in 2011, the self-styled baseball rat only played in 7 regular season games and was left off a Cardinals’ playoff roster that magically scratched and clawed its way to a World Series championship.
Carpenter wants one of his own. He almost had it in 2013, appearing in but ultimately losing the World Series to the Boston Red Sox. It’s been a downhill slide for his Cardinals ever since, and the latest iteration of St. Louis baseball has failed to even reach the Wild Card game the last two seasons.
Arenado can relate.
In six years as a Colorado Rockie, the player who has quietly become the face of the National League can count his playoff games played on one hand. One finger, actually.
A single Wild Card game his club lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017. That defeat was obviously on his mind when he spoke to the media in late June of this year:
“I just get pissed because I don’t want to lose anymore. I’ve only been to the playoffs once and it was only one game. And I really want more than that.
“I’m tired of coming to the ballpark and losing. We work too hard as a group to experience that. I’m not saying I go home questioning, like, ‘I don’t like this place.’ I love it here. But yeah, I want to win. And the more we lose, the more I — if you lose all the time, nobody wants to be there.”
When Arenado made those telling remarks, the Rockies sat mired in a 40-42 season, seemingly destined for another losing year. But a 17-6 July changed the narrative and rocketed the Rockies within NL Wild Card striking distance.
Then, August happened.
Since August 1st, Colorado has managed to win just 3 games, going 3-7 in a dismal slide that threatens to wreck what looked to be a postseason-bound campaign. Even Arenado recently succumbed to the grind of baseball’s marathon stretch, exiting Friday’s game with right shoulder soreness. He’s listed as day-to-day, but how long can the ailing Rockies fend off the suddenly hopeful St. Louis Cardinals without their premiere slugger, a team that’s gone 7-3 in their own last 10 games and now sit dead even with Colorado at 3.5 games back of the second WC spot?
If Colorado can’t right the ship, they’ll find themselves staring down the barrel of more than another fall without a playoff appearance. They’ll be facing their franchise player, already soured on another losing season, a year away from free agency and arbitration eligible for the last time.
Surely Arenado is due a raise from his current $17.5 million salary.
In 2018, 24 MLB players are earning more than $22 million with six at or above $30 million. Clayton Kershaw will finish the year with $35.57 million for playing fewer than 30 games. That’s more than twice Arenado’s current salary for approximately a fifth of the games Arenado will likely appear in by year’s end.
The question is not will Nolan Arenado get a raise in 2019, it’s do the Rockies – a team that may be approaching ownership’s payroll ceiling – really want to be the ones paying it for a player due to set a free agent record a year after the Machado and Harper circus this offseason?
Will the Rockies view themselves as capable of making one more go at a postseason run before losing their best player? Or will they see 2017 as the fluke, the year they posted their only winning record since going 83-79 in 2010, when Arenado was in A ball, and seek to unload their best chance at rebuilding the franchise now?
Surely the latter is more palatable than watching Arenado’s trade value gradually erode as he plays game after meaningless game waiting for a lesser deal to materialize in July. There’s no doubt that a deal made before the 2019 opener carries significantly more value than one made after.
And that’s where the St. Louis Cardinals come in.
Already on record as preferring players acquired via trade to those won in free agency, a front office led by President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak and new General Manager Michael Girsch are already looking for ways to make the roster better – in 2019.
Arenado does that while also granting the Cardinals a year’s worth of exclusive negotiating rights to sign the third baseman to a long and lucrative extension. It also gives them a much better chance to win again in what has been called a “window” defined by the final contract years of future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina.
Although Molina is signed through 2020 – the year he says will be his last – the ascendance of Carson Kelly and Andrew Knizner behind him in the minor leagues means 2019 may be Yadi’s final season as the everyday starter. It would come as no surprise if the St. Louis front office split time between their tone-setter and his eventual successor in 2020, much like Molina himself did with incumbent Mike Matheny in 2004.
And 2019 also happens to be the final year of control for recent trade acquisition and clean-up hitter Marcell Ozuna. While the Big Bear from Miami is posting a somewhat disappointing season in 2018, a mild awakening under new hitting coach Mark Budaska is reason for hope beyond this year. Besides, Mo and Girsch gave up too much to get Ozuna only to give up on him so soon.
That’s the Cardinals’ one, two, and four hitters entering their final year of guaranteed everyday at-bats in 2019, all three of them former All-Stars, and one of them bound for the Busch Stadium wall. You can feel the mounting pressure to win now, even from this side of the keyboard.
For the top half of the Cardinals’ batting order, it’s 2019 or bust. In that lineup, Arenado would fit nicely at number three.
But so far, we’ve only answered two of the three questions that matter. Would Colorado consider dealing Arenado this offseason? Sure. Are the Cardinals interested enough in winning in 2019 to pursue a deal? Of course.
But the biggest question remains unanswered. Do the Cardinals have enough of what the Rockies want to swing a deal, and would they be willing to give it up to close it?
Stocked with the one thing Colorado constantly craves, Mozeliak could take advantage of his plethora of young arms and flip them the Rockies’ way, tempting their front office with the most expensive commodity in the mountainous air of Colorado.
Selling free agent hitters on the lofty heights of Coors Field is somewhat akin to selling Clark W. Griswold a bottle of water in the desert, but convincing free agent pitchers to join their ranks is another story entirely. The long ball that is such an asset when luring hitters becomes a glaring liability when covering innings on the mound. And that’s exactly what makes a trade partner like the Cardinals so enticing.
By turning Arenado into a couple of young, controllable, inexpensive pitchers capable of anchoring a rotation, the Rockies could conceivably build a contender in the NL West for years to come. For the Cardinals part, sending one or two from a group that includes Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Daniel Poncedeleon, Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, and John Gant westward may be enough to land them what they haven’t had since the departure of Albert Pujols.
A true franchise player capable of anchoring a lineup for a World Series run.
Losing one or two pitchers as the centerpiece of a deal would certainly hurt, but Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Miles Mikolas, and two of the remaining four or five pitchers would still form one of the better starting rotations in the National League for years, with depth to spare.
Do the Cardinals have what it takes to make a blockbuster trade with Colorado? Absolutely. But are they willing to part with the necessary pieces to close the deal?
After firing their manager mid-season, something they haven’t done since relieving Joe Torre in the mid-90s, and enduring the unthinkable in St. Louis – October-less baseball for two or three straight years – I say yes.
The St. Louis front office pursued and lost David Price and Jason Heyward. They pestered Toronto over Josh Donaldson less than a year ago. And they infamously wooed Giancarlo Stanton only to be left at the alter for the new hotness Aaron Judge and the New York Yankees.
But this offseason, the Cardinals may finally be ready to land their franchise player in Nolan Arenado.
They just need to beat the Rockies to the second Wild Card spot first.
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.