In re-signing pitching paragon Adam Wainwright to a one-year contract for 2021, the Cardinals did the right thing, the good thing, the obvious thing — and one of their favorite things.
Cards management made a pragmatic deal, and got an essential player to take the hometown discount. And a one-year deal — even for an aging star — carries a trifling amount of risk.
According to media reports Wainwright will receive $8 million to work his 16th season in the majors, all with the Cardinals. That’s a bargain, and even if Waino shows his age (39) in an unfortunate way … so what?
The Wainwright extension is one small step for the chairman (Bill DeWitt Jr.) but not a giant leap for the franchise. The next order of business is reuniting Yadier Molina with Wainwright and reattaching the future Hall of Fame catcher to his Cardinals’ legacy. And on a Zoom call Friday, Wainwright said he would recruit Molina to come back.
The Wainwright news was overshadowed by the BFIB’s latest ride on the Nelson Arenado Rumor Tilt-a-Whirl. This a reliable event, more dependable than the actual baseball schedule itself.
Just to reset, here’s the genesis of Ken Rosenthal’s report on The Athletic last night: “A trade of Nolan Arenado finally might be coming into focus. The Cardinals are in discussions with the Rockies about a deal that would bring the five-time All-Star third baseman to St. Louis, according to major-league sources. No deal appears close, and the other players who might be involved are not known.”
A little later the Denver Post added its own report, via baseball beat writer Patrick Saunders: “A major league source told the Denver Post Thursday night that a deal is not nearly close, adding that the Atlanta Braves also might be interested in Arenado.”
This tweet. from The Athletic’s Jayson Stark: “Cardinals players have been buzzing about this with each other for several weeks. It would be a tectonic shift in the NL Central if their team can make it happen.”
Another tweet from USA Today’s Bob Nightengale: “There is no question that Nolan Arenado would love to be traded from the #Rockies, and yes, he will gladly waive his no-trade clause for the #STLCards, an organization he deeply admires. The #STLCards were down this road last year, too, knowing they can acquire Nolan Arenado from the #Rockies now, or perhaps sign him as a free agent after the season if he opts out of his contract. They have plenty of leverage in potential deal.”
A smiling and cryptic Wainwright even joined the fun by throwing a couple of batting-practice fastballs into the convo:
“I think the guys who are running our organization are really, really smart businessmen, obviously,” he said. “They don’t get where they are if they aren’t really smart, genius businessmen type minds.”
And then …
“I think there’s some things that they might be thinking about or trying to pull off that will make people pretty happy. We’ll see.”
Wainwright’s closing comment was appropriate:
The Cardinals and Rockies have gone around in circles over Arenado so many times, I’ve lost track. And when the Arenado rumor-rama starts to spin again, it overheats the STL media and BFIB and leaves us dizzy.
I’ve been highly skeptical and outright dismissive of Arenado-Cardinals chatter. Based on a valid line of thinking, of course. And even though something may be stirring, I’d still be surprised by an Arenado-STL trade.
Entering 2021, Arenado has six years and $199 million remaining on an eight-year $26o million contract. He can opt out of the agreement after the ‘21 season. But with most MLB payrolls decreasing, and team owners claiming financial hardship because of the pandemic, and a fierce labor battle looming next offseason, it makes absolutely no sense for Arenado to rip up the guaranteed $164 million owed to him starting in 2022.
In order here are Arenado’s guaranteed yearly salaries from 2021 through 2026:
- $35 million
- $35 mill
- $35 mill
- $35 mill
- $32 mill
- $27 mill
As I pointed out recently here at “Scoops,” any speculative chirping over Arenado-to-STL must include the team’s contract commitment to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Goldy is set to make $26 million in 2021, ‘22, ‘23 and ‘24.
So to have All-Star caliber players at first base and third — and that would be nice, right? — DeWitt would be investing $244 million in two players over a four-season period. He would be paying Goldy and Noldy (sorry, couldn’t resist) around $60 million combined per season.
In the final two years of Goldschmidt’s contract (2023, 2024) he’ll be 35 and 36 years old, respectively. And during those same two years, Arenado would be playing in his age 32 and age 33 seasons.
By the DeWitt-Cardinals historical standards, that’s a ginormous expenditure on two players on the other side of age 30. Teams can run their forecast models and all of that, but there’s really no reliable way of anticipating the timing and the severity of an age-related decline.
To land Arenado the Cardinals undoubtedly would move prospects to Colorado as part of the exchange. This is another unknown. Which prospects? How many prospects? What’s the price? Does it mean sending third-base slugging prospect Nolan Gorman off to Colorado to spend many happy years pumping out monster home-run totals?
That’s one variable, and a biggie.
The insufferable Rockies GM Jeff Bridich has alienated Arenado. Every indication is, “NA” would like to go elsewhere. The Rockies would like Arenado’s contract go elsewhere. Both parties figure to have keen interest in making a deal with St. Louis.
There’s urgency to get something done … but how much?
As ESPN’s Buster Olney noted: “Important context for any Arenado trade: Owed $199 million for the next six seasons. He turns 30 on April 16. The biggest deal for any FA this winter is George Springer’s six years/$150 million deal with Toronto. Colorado likely to get little in trade return unless it eats a chunk of the contract.”
— First step: Arenado waiving his no-trade clause.
— The Rockies would have to agree to pay a significant slice of Arenado’s contract just to send a much larger share of that contract to DeWitt and the Cardinals. Or, in an alternative choice for reducing the Cardinals’ costs, the Rockies could agree to accept a higher-salaried player from St. Louis. The natural candidates are Matt Carpenter ($18.5 million in 2021) or Dexter Fowler ($16.5 million.) Or maybe Carlos Martinez ($11.5 million.)
— But if the Rockies don’t want to pay much of Arenado’s salary to make this happen, I don’t think the Cardinals would give up a couple of prospects to make it happen. Pick one or the other, Rockies. Do you want the high-end prospects? If so, then it’ll cost you money to help defray the Cardinals’ obligation to Arenado. But even then, you’ll still save money, long term.
— I’m assuming Arenado has at least some degree of willingness to incentivize the Cardinals to give him a new home. As Rosenthal pointed out, this could be done by pushing back his right to opt out after ‘21. Maybe he’d wait to consider opting out after 2022; that way Arenado could test drive the Cardinals for two seasons. And if it feels right, Arenado can just play out his contract as a Cardinal. Or perhaps he’d opt out following 2022 and negotiate a new deal with St. Louis — probably one that would include deferred salaries to level out the Cardinals’ real-time payroll over several seasons.
I just don’t see DeWitt and baseball president John Mozeliak having enthusiasm for doing a straight-up, as-is deal that would pay Goldy and Noldy a combined $60 million per year over four seasons.
The Cardinals have all but taken a vow of poverty this winter. They still haven’t brought in one MLB player from the outside via trade or free-agent signing … sorry, but Waino doesn’t count. So in that context, pulling in Arenado from Colorado would be massive.
I’m not saying they couldn’t afford it. I just don’t think they’d want to do it … and trade elite prospects … and fret over the aging curve of both players.
Arenado is coming off a 2020 season ruined by shoulder inflammation; he slugged .434 overall but only .333 on the road.
It’s probably a good idea to talk about Coors Field. For his career Arenado has a .609 slugging percentage at Coors, and a .471 slug on the road. He’s 28 percent above league average offensively at home, and eight percent above average on the road. But when the RH-swinging Arenado faces RH pitching on the road, he’s been four percent above average.
One popular theory is that Coors hitters struggle on the road because they’re so heavy into a Coors-specific hitting approach and don’t adapt when hitting on the road. But smarter hitters make those adjustments and do well, home or away. Matt Holliday was one of those guys.
Really, this comes down to what the Cardinals are willing to give up: prospects and salary cost. Giving up any concern over having a hefty contract tied to another aging, 30-plus hitter in their lineup.
And this comes down to what the Rockies and Arenado are willing to give up. Money, mostly. And a contract accommodation on Arenado’s part.
From an entertainment perspective, this would be a fun gamble by the Cardinals. And their corner infield spots would feature two classy players that have combined for 11 All-Star games, 11 Gold Gloves and eight Silver Sluggers. Arenado has received MVP votes in five seasons; with Goldschmidt that count is seven. Among active players Goldschmidt is 18th in career bWAR; Arenado is 30th.
And if the Cardinals are stewing over potential revenue shortfalls, an Arenado trade would energize an increasingly bored and skeptical fan base.
DeWitt and Mozeliak broke from their standard philosophy by trading prospects for Marcell Ozuna, and trading prospects for Goldschmidt. They’ve spent $82.5 million to sign Fowler as a free agent. Gave pitcher Mike Leake $80 million. While steadfast in their commitment to drafting and developing young players, DeWitt and Moz have thrown down on a few bold gambles.
Will they do it again? For the traditionally conservative Cardinals, dealing for Arenado would be the biggest gamble of them all.
But when asked Friday morning about the team payroll for 2021 compared to last season, Mozeliak said: “I suspect we’ll be lower.”
That doesn’t sound like the lead baseball executive of a team who’s about to go full blockbuster on Arenado.
Or this could be a helluva head-fake after the Cardinals’ sad, sorry, woe-is-me winter of worry.
Thanks for reading…
Listen to Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m., and on Friday from 4-6 p.m. Or catch the Bernie Show or the show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app is available in your favorite app store.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.