The Cardinals needed a superstar, and in Arenado they get one

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Before the pandemic struck last spring, when we were in spring training with the Cardinals, discussions with front office folks led me to believe that momentum was building toward a deal with Colorado for Nolan Arenado. The Cardinals had well documented interest in the Rockies third baseman, and months earlier…as rumors swirled around a deal…I had asked an executive who was going to hit fourth behind Paul Goldschmidt? The answer? “Maybe Goldy. It might be someone we don’t even have yet.” That thought stuck with me as the Arenado rumors bounced around last year.

Obviously, once the baseball season became what it became because of Covid-19, no deal was forthcoming. On Karraker and Smallmon in the morning, Michelle and I had discussions about Arenado many times, including the question of whether we’d trade Jack Flaherty for him. But to be honest, I thought the Arenado ship had sailed. With the revenue shortfall as a result of the pandemic, with the Cardinals having FOUR third basemen among their top sixteen prospects (#2 Nolan Gorman, #6 and 2020 first round pick Jordan Walker, #8 Elehuris Montero and #16 Malcom Nunez), I figured the idea of Arenado becoming a Cardinal was a moot point.

My thought was that the Cardinals were in the midst of rebuilding on the fly, and that their focus was on trying to start winning again in 2022. But as they apparently proved over the weekend…with the reported deal for Arenado…they’re in it to win it in 2021. Arenado is a “Face of the Franchise” type player. He’s a five time All Star, he’s won a Gold Glove in each of his eight seasons in the big leagues, he’s led the league in home runs three times, and is one of those guys that can lead a young team by example.

I mentioned on Twitter over the weekend that I have a nephew who was in the Colorado system through last spring. He got traded to the Rockies in 2019 and, to get to know his teammates, made it a point to arrive at sunrise every day during spring training to meet his new teammates as they came in. The one guy that was there before him every day at Talking Stick fields in Scottsdale as the sun rose in the east, already working out, was Arenado. He had just signed a new eight-year, $260 million contract, and was the first one there, fielding backhands in foul territory, throwing across the diamond, running for popups with his back to the plate, taking grounders from his knees and throwing. That’s what the Cardinals are getting.

Sure, the Rockies are sending $50 million to the Cards to cover part of the remainder of his contract, and Arenado is allowing the club to defer part of the money. But getting him will still cost the franchise roughly $165 million as they add a guaranteed year to the deal, which is the biggest guaranteed payout in team history. And there are no guarantees. I think Arenado will be great as a Cardinal based on what happened with Matt Holliday, Larry Walker and D.J. LeMahieu when they left Coors field. But there have been players that have left the altitude and struggled, like Vinny Castilla and Carlos Gonzalez. I’m happy that the Cards…especially after the Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter contracts…are still willing to gamble.

This deal is, in essence, what baseball has become. There are teams that try, like the Dodgers, Mets, Yankees, White Sox and Padres. And there are teams that have decided to take 2021 off, like the Cubs, Reds, Indians and Rockies. The Cardinals apparently decided the group of teams trying this year with this deal…but we will see it’s much more that just a deal for 2021.

The fact that the Cardinals are going to give Arenado ANOTHER opt-out of his contract…so he can leave after 2021 OR 2022, shows that they’re willing to bet on their competitiveness for the future. An extra year for his contract shows the Cardinals (for better or worse) believe that Arenado will have a Matt Holliday-type long term impact on the team.

Beyond that impact on the 26 guys in the clubhouse, Arenado can be a franchise changing player. In talking to people who spend a lot of time around baseball over the weekend, Arenado is universally regarded as one of the best PEOPLE in sports. One person texted me “the best combination of player/person in sports…by FAR. Maybe (Chiefs quarterback Patrick) Mahomes is close.” Being in St. Louis and out of the spotlight will suit him just fine.

The Cardinals didn’t have that transcendent Hall of Fame quality player in his prime on their roster. The Hall of Fame monitor at Baseball-Reference has Arenado at a 96 at this point in his career, with a score of 100 being a likely Hall of Famer. In every single defensive metric, he’s been THE BEST third baseman in baseball ever since he came up to the big leagues. Among active players under thirty years old, only Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Manny Machado have accumulated more than Arenado’s 39.1 WAR. He has more than Freddie Freeman, Jose Altuve and Anthony Rizzo. And then there’s this stat: In 2021 Arenado and Christian Yelich will play their eighth seasons at age thirty. Arenado’s WAR for eight years is 39.1. Yelich’s is 29. The Cardinals have traded for a Hall of Fame person AND player!

Credit is due Cardinals’ Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., whom many of us thought didn’t want to pay for a big acquisition during the pandemic. To John Mozeliak, whose aggressiveness in getting great players has been questioned. To Arenado’s close friend Matt Holliday, who has spent lots of time with Arenado selling him on the merits of St. Louis and the Cardinals. And to the BFIB…because the Cardinals can be sure they’ll be back when they can.

The last deal to energize the fan base this much was probably the Holliday deal with Oakland back in 2009. This singular deal lengthens the Cardinal lineup to the point that they’ll be a prohibitive favorite in the N.L. Central. It makes their infield defense one of the best in baseball. It provides an exceptional clubhouse presence, especially with such a young team. And it re-legitimizes the Cardinals as one of baseball’s powers…one of the teams that’s always a threat to make a move to be one of the best.