A big-spending, large-market National League team could land Nolan Arenado this winter in a blockbuster trade.
No, it’s not the Dodgers.
The Mets are better positioned than the Dodgers to deal for Arenado, sources say, even though New York is focused for the moment on free-agent outfielder George Springer.
While officials from the Mets and Rockies have been in contact this offseason, it does not appear the clubs have engaged in serious trade talks. Jared Porter, the Mets’ new general manager, has been on the job for less than one week and likely will take time to familiarize himself with the team’s personnel before executing a franchise-defining trade.
Still, there are multiple reasons why the Mets are among the best destinations for Arenado -- and possibly the best -- if the Rockies decide they have little choice but to trade their eight-time Gold Glove Award winner at third base.
Let’s start with the financial motivation.
Arenado, 29, is owed $199 million through 2026 -- even though contract language allows him to opt out and become a free agent after earning $35 million in 2021.
As Major League clubs cope with lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, few teams are comfortable assuming new financial liabilities of that magnitude. Of course, Arenado’s guaranteed amount can change if he exercises the opt-out after 2021 or moves it to a later season in return for waiving his no-trade clause, as part of an agreement with a new club.
Mets owner Steve Cohen has made clear he’s willing to invest in the roster, substantially and sustainably, in an effort to win the World Series. Thus, the Mets are among a minority of teams comfortable adding nine-figure contracts this winter. Acute economic uncertainty would make it challenging for Arenado to sign a $199 million deal if he were a free agent today, particularly coming off his worst offensive season since 2013.
For similar reasons, it’s far from certain that Arenado will opt out one year from now, around the time baseball’s collective bargaining agreement is due to expire. Still, Arenado’s decision is only part of the financial complexity confronting Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich. Star shortstop Trevor Story will be a free agent after 2021, and it seems doubtful the Rockies can afford both infielders for the long term.
Thus, trading Arenado this winter would provide multiple benefits to the Rockies: Bridich would ensure that the team receives more than a compensatory Draft pick in return for Arenado’s departure, and the elimination of his contract from the books should enable the team to offer Story an appealing extension.
The Rockies are open to significant roster changes, since it’s difficult to imagine them finishing ahead of the National League West-rival Dodgers or the Padres in 2021, based on the gap in recent on-field performance. And while the Dodgers are known to have longstanding admiration for Arenado, the difficult optics of trading a franchise player within the division mean the Rockies would rather do business elsewhere.
So, what could be the framework of a Rockies-Mets trade?
First, Arenado and the Mets likely would need to agree on moving back the opt-out date, which would provide the team with additional years of control and Arenado with more guaranteed money.
Next, because Arenado’s contract may be greater than what he’d receive on the open market right now, the Rockies likely would need to accept some additional liabilities in order to “buy” the younger players they want. Robinson Canó’s contract -- $48 million over the 2022 and ‘23 seasons -- matches that description.
Beyond the Rockies’ interest in the Mets’ prospect base, Colorado likely would insist that a position player (not on an expiring contract) be part of the trade. Brandon Nimmo, Dominic Smith and Jeff McNeil are among the possibilities.
Nimmo, who is on track to become a free agent after the 2022 season, would be expendable if the Mets add Springer as their everyday center fielder. While it’s difficult to imagine them signing Springer and trading for Arenado -- because at some point they’re likely to allocate resources to the starting rotation -- the possibility can’t be ruled out entirely.
After all, part of the reason the Mets signed James McCann, rather than wait for the more expensive J.T. Realmuto, was because it afforded them greater flexibility to upgrade other areas of the roster. The additions of Springer and Arenado would exceed even the most ambitious expectations for the Mets in their first offseason under Cohen. But in a winter of uncertainty, perhaps aggression is the new inefficiency.