Throwing Cold Water on “Hot” Arenado-Cardinals Rumor

photo: Matt Carpenter and Nolan Arenado (Jeff Curry/Imagn)

It is early January, a quiet time. Many of us are trying not to break our New Year’s resolutions, while the Major League Baseball hot stove, fueled early on by a parade of Scott Boras-client signings, has gone cold.

Against that backdrop, hungry baseball fans are starving for information. ESPN’s Jeff Passan obliged St. Louis Cardinals followers on Tuesday, with a tidbit buried deep in a generic 20 questions-20 answers article.

“As the Colorado Rockies search for potential trade partners (for third baseman Nolan Arenado), two teams in particular have intrigued them, according to sources: the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.”

OK, the Rockies are reportedly “intrigued”. Good to know, but is that it?

Apparently so, though Passan did go on to speculate that the Cardinals “would consider” making Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler available (well, duh). However, the writer offers no insight whatsoever into why the Rockies would want them.

(Update: On Thursday, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote about why he sees the potential pairing between Arenado and the Cardinals to be a good one. He also suggests the relationship between Arenado and the Rockies is deteriorating to the point a trade is “starting to look inevitable,” while drawing a Scott Rolen parallel. Stepping back, however, Rosenthal provides no specifics on any talks actually being under way between the two teams or any new insight on how such a complicated deal might be constructed.)

To anxious Cardinals fans, please try to look at this from the other side of the table – or likely more accurately, from the other end of the phone.

Nolan Arenado (Allan Henry/Imagn)

Colorado is potentially offering up a 28-year old superstar that they do not have to trade. They should have no motivation to accept bad contracts in return. They hold all the cards.

While it is true that other media sources have reported over time that the Cardinals have interest in Arenado, what team wouldn’t (other than maybe the Angels after signing Anthony Rendon)?

As always, the question is the price.

Some are wondering if it might take prized Cardinals prospects Dylan Carlson or Nolan Gorman – or both – plus others to close a deal. Imaginations are running wild.

But rather than debate the construct of a fantasy trade, instead let’s take a look at how the Cardinals might view such an acquisition in terms of impact on the major league team.

If I am the Cardinals, I consider how many incremental wins Arenado would give me over (ideally) a Carpenter-Tommy Edman vs. RHP-LHP unequal job share at third base.

Over the last five years, as one of MLB’s most consistent players, Arenado has been worth slightly under six wins per season, per Fangraphs (fWAR).

Carpenter has been below 3.2 wins only once in the last seven years (in 2019). In 2020, if Carpenter just performs at the lowest level of any year before his lost 2019, and Edman can give them even one win as a part timer at third, then Arenado might be worth two incremental wins. (Also note that this optimistically assumes zero negative Coors Field effect on Arenado’s offense when he changes teams.)

Another simpler rough check is that in 2019, Carpenter plus Edman delivered 4.4 fWAR. Arenado was at 5.9.

So what would be the cost of those incremental 1.5 to two wins?

To secure the services of Arenado, St. Louis would likely give up multiple prospects/players plus assume $35 million per year in salary commitment.

Even if Carpenter is not in the trade, the Cards would almost certainly have to move him out afterward, buying out his full no-trade protection to do so. To get some value in return, they would likely have to eat some of his pay – perhaps even more than otherwise, since Arenado’s arrival would make it clear that Carpenter has to go. Simply put, formally making Carpenter an ex-third base starter would not enhance his trade value.

Colorado might cover some of Arenado’s salary, but again, why would they have to? And if they don’t, then their trade partner is going to want to give them fewer players or lower quality ones in return.

Remember, this is a Cardinals team that has a stated intent to keep payroll relatively consistent from 2019 to 2020. Could they have said that to keep fan expectations low while quietly “going for it”? Sure, but it isn’t exactly evident in their DNA.

Frankly, it seems to me that if the Cardinals were serious about upgrading third base, the better path would have been to pursue free agents Rendon or Josh Donaldson, who could have been/be acquired for cash and the loss of one future draft pick.

Bottom line, I do not see the Arenado equation for the Cardinals closing. Instead, I see an ant hill being made into the Rocky Mountains. That remains my view until proven wrong – and I am not holding my breath.

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