Nolan Arenado was never going to finish his extension with the Rockies

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In a masterclass of a cowardly news dump, the Rockies traded their star player, Nolan Arenado, late on Friday night. Arenado leaving the Rockies was always inevitable, even as he signed an eight-year extension for $260 million back before the 2019 season. The deal had an opt-out, for one, and it became clear in a hurry that the opt-out was meant to be used. And not because Arenado planned on using it, either. Let’s rewind to October 2019. Or fast-forward to then, I guess. Whatever, time is a human construct, here’s me back in that October:

GM Jeff Bridich had some awkward honesty in his own presser, telling everyone that he’s the one who pushed for the opt-out in star third baseman Nolan Arenado’s lucrative extension. Why would he do that, you ask? Well, according to The Athletic’s Nick Groke: “Bridich said he feels no pressure to prove a winning team as a way to keep Arenado.” So, the Rockies locked up their most popular, best player to a long-term deal, earning some goodwill, which was much-needed after years of losing previous franchise icons for one reason or another. They also provided that player with an escape hatch he didn’t ask for, and straight-up said they don’t feel like they need to try in order to keep him from going through it. So, should Arenado leave because Colorado decides being a garbage fire is better than trying, the Rockies can at least hypothetically blame him for taking off: it was out of their hands, you know, he had the option to bail.

Arenado had a down 2020 season, which it should be pointed out means he had a down one-third of a season in terms of plate appearances and games played. (See? Human construct.) So the Rockies didn’t want to wait for the opt-out and Arenado maybe deciding that he didn’t want to escape after all because the remaining money was too good for him to walk away from, and instead sent him to St. Louis along with $50 million to get out from under the $199 million they still owed. In exchange, they got a box of minor leaguers you probably haven’t heard of before, and lots of deserved derision for the move.

The Rockies started whining about financial flexibility that same October where Bridich admitted that keeping Arenado had nothing to do with attempting to win, when their owner, Dick Monfort, tried to say a team that had made nearly twice their payroll in revenue, that was still $61 million below the luxury tax threshold, didn’t have any wiggle room. By the way, the day before, Monfort had announced a lucrative new television deal that would improve on their take-home from the previous TV contract they were in. In short: the Rockies didn’t feel compelled to build a winner, but did feel compelled to lie about whether they had the resources to build a winner. So now, with MLB teams crying poor because of the lack of gate revenues in the 2020 season, the Rockies made their move and shipped out a guy they never planned on having in purple for the length of his extension.

This move wasn’t surprising because of the Rockies’ own conversations with the media the past couple of years, but also because of their treatment of Arenado since the extension. In January 2020, I published a story titled “Nolan Arenado is mad at the Rockies for reasons predictable to everyone besides the Rockies.” The Rockies had been attempting to trade Arenado just months after the public cries regarding the importance of financial flexibility and the reveal that Bridich didn’t think building a winner mattered when it came to keeping Arenado around. It turns out that it did matter to Arenado himself, and that Bridich forcing the opt-out into the contract was actually making it harder to move their star. About that:

No one made the Rockies force this opt-out into the deal, one that now is going to make it difficult to deal a player they never had any real intention of keeping throughout his contract, a la the Marlins and Giancarlo Stanton. No one made the Rockies avoid upgrading their team a priority, which in turn caused Arenado to speak up in the first place: that was on ownership and management. If the Rockies had simply tried to build around Arenado, or signed him in good faith, or just let him work his way through arbitration and try to deal him this winter when it was clear he wasn’t going to want to stick around with a team that’s tripping over itself while trying to run in place… basically, if the Rockies had done anything besides their first instinct, they’d be better off right now.

The Rockies ended up shipping $50 million and Arenado to the Cardinals for basically nothing besides “financial flexibility,” so they can be even worse off than they were but cheaper. The sad thing is that they’d probably consider that a victory — they’re still $149 million up! — so there’s only so much “I told you so” to gloat with here.

There is another reason that this trade shouldn’t be surprising at all, and it has to do with the Rockies and more to do with the direction of everything. Last week at Baseball Prospectus, I wrote about the idea that the luxury tax is working even more as a salary cap, revisiting the idea put forth in a Deadspin feature of mine from two years ago, where “Yankees money” is the measuring stick that the rest of the league uses that guides their own spending:

The luxury tax is an arbitrary anchor point, and if the Yankees and Co. are defining “Yankees money” as a level below that tax threshold, then the rest of the league is going to follow suit. This is just business, but it also fits baseball’s personal kayfabe, in which no team can compete financially with the Yankees.

Basically, with the Yankees — and every other traditionally major spender — intent on avoiding the luxury tax threshold, it only emboldens the Rockies of the world to spend less. We’ve seen that actually happen, too, as described in the BP piece: unless the Dodgers bring back Justin Turner, we probably won’t see any team exceed the luxury tax in 2021. With the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Nationals, Giants, and maybe the Dodgers, too, all avoiding the tax they’ve had no problem exceeding in the past, and all avoiding it as part of a larger plan to avoid the threshold, why should the Rockies feel like trying to win is a goal? It’s not like they needed to be convinced to do less, but the biggest spenders in the league still gave them some additional motivation to run in place, anyway.

We don’t know exactly where things are going to go after the next collective bargaining negotiations, in terms of the luxury tax or its thresholds or whether an expanded postseason becomes a normal thing, or really anything about them. You can be sure, though, that owners like Monfort will trot out their self-inflicted wounds as reasons to make changes that benefit them even more, at the expense of the players, at the expense of the fans, and at the expense of a more watchable, enjoyable game. The Rockies and others might think it’s what they need, but like with the opt-out they forced onto Arenado, it’s a scheme that’s going to end with more disappointment and disillusionment than anything.

  • I had a pretty busy week at BP to end January, thanks to some holiday and early 2021 scheduling snafus. Not only did I write the piece reflecting on where the luxury-tax-as-salary-cap projections have brought us and are still bringing us, but I also looked at how the existence of the antitrust exemption helped set up MLB’s unchallengeable power grab of Minor League Baseball.

  • And that wasn’t all, either, as I also wrote about how the BBWAA needs to decide what character means to them before the next wave of Hall of Fame voting occurs.

  • For Patreon subscribers, Jen Ramos wrote about how baseball media’s “girl boss” coverage of Trevor Bauer’s agent, Rachel Luba, ignores her perpetuation of harassment.

  • While we’re on the subject, Natalie Weiner wrote about the double-edged sword of “women’s empowerment,” and how it’s used as a weapon by women like Barstool CEO Erika Nardini. Both pieces are absolutely worth your time, as all of this is a larger discussion that requires a lot more nuance than many in the media give it.

  • Speaking of conversations we need to have, this interview on collective bargaining with labor lawyer Eugene Freedman is also a good way to start thinking about what is going to be a year of CBA talks.

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