It was less than a year ago, in late February, that the Rockies signed Nolan Arenado to a record-setting contract extension. The eight-year deal, worth $260 million, gave the star third baseman the highest average annual salary ($32.5 million) for a position player in MLB history (quickly surpassed by Mike Trout).
In the wake of another highly productive season for Arenado -- but a disappointing one for Colorado -- is it possible that his accomplished tenure in Denver could come to an end?
As unlikely as that may seem, MLB Network insider Jon Heyman reported last week that the Rockies “are willing to listen” to trade offers for Arenado and have received numerous calls about him. MLB.com’s Jon Morosi echoed that report, while also pointing out that "it’s unclear if there is any traction in talks."
To say that an Arenado trade would be complicated is an understatement. There’s the difficulty in trading one of the best players in franchise history, so soon after committing to him long term. There’s the seven years and $234 million remaining on his contract. There’s the fact that Arenado can opt out after the 2021 season. And then there’s his full no-trade clause, which he would have to waive.
Even if Arenado gave his consent, Colorado would have to balance lightening its payroll with acquiring the sort of young players or prospects that could help the club move forward. A team interested in Arenado -- perhaps one that misses out on Josh Donaldson, the lone remaining big-name free agent at third base after Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year, $245 million pact with the Angels -- may not want to absorb more than $200 million in salary and surrender significant young talent.
One case to consider is the trade of Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins to the Yankees two Decembers ago. Stanton was three seasons into a 13-year, $325 million extension at the time, and while he was two years younger than Arenado is now, he also had 10 guaranteed seasons left on his deal. He was also coming off an MVP-winning campaign that featured 59 home runs, although he didn’t offer as well rounded a profile as the consistent, durable, slick-fielding Arenado.
The Yankees pried Stanton away by absorbing almost all of his contract (the Marlins will kick in $30 million if he doesn’t exercise his opt-out after this coming season). Starlin Castro, an extraneous veteran with about $23 million remaining on his deal, went to Miami to help balance the finances, and the Marlins got the Yanks’ ninth-ranked prospect (pitcher Jorge Guzman), plus another unranked prospect (shortstop Jose Devers).
Using that as a rough model but assuming that the Rockies could seek more talent in return -- perhaps by eating more money -- here are six potential Arenado trades to ponder.
1. A new Nolan in Texas
Rangers get: 3B Nolan Arenado and cash
Why it could work: Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan spent his last five seasons with the Rangers, but Arenado is still in his prime and would be the sort of big-ticket item the club needs as it opens Globe Life Field in 2020. Having failed to land Rendon, who was Texas’ top target in free agency, the team could acquire a comparable player in Arenado, who is still due a similar amount of money. Winn could be MLB-ready by '21, but he's blocked in Texas' rotation after the club acquired Corey Kluber, Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles this offseason.
Choo is set to make $21 million in the final year of his contract, so sending him to Colorado lessens Texas’ payroll hit in 2020. Additional cash helps the Rockies land a much-needed catcher of the future in Huff, who hit 28 homers at two Class A levels in 2019. Winn grew up in Longmont, Colo., about 50 miles from Denver, and was the 15th overall pick in the 2018 Draft.
Who says no? The Rockies, due to questions surrounding Huff's plate discipline and Winn's control.
2. Atlanta goes all in
Braves get: 3B Nolan Arenado, OF Charlie Blackmon and cash
Why it could work: The Braves want a big bat to replace free agent Josh Donaldson, so why not get two? Arenado takes over the hot corner, and Blackmon handles one of the corners in the outfield, shifting Ronald Acuña Jr. to center. It might be asking a lot for Atlanta to take on Arenado and Blackmon’s contracts, but Colorado chipping in, say, $40 million or so (essentially, Blackmon’s salary over 2020-21) makes it more palatable. Blackmon, who happens to be a Georgia native and a Georgia Tech alum, also has player options for 2022 ($21 million) and '23 ($10 million), and it seems likely that he will take at least the first one.
As for Wright and Contreras, it would hurt to lose two promising prospects, but there’s plenty of pitching in the pipeline and 2019 first-rounder Shea Langeliers is the catcher of the future. After a pair of underwhelming NLDS exits, this would signal that the Braves mean business.
The Rockies, meanwhile, would address three main areas of need -- center field, pitching and catcher -- in addition to getting serious payroll relief. Inciarte’s bat has regressed the past two years, but the 29-year-old makes plenty of contact, remains a dynamite defender and is on a team-friendly contract ($15 million through ‘21 with a $9 million option or a $1 million buyout for ‘22). The No. 5 overall Draft pick in 2017, Wright is a big league-ready 24-year-old power arm Colorado could insert into its rotation immediately, and the 21-year-old Contreras should be in line to reach The Show within a year or so after reaching Double-A.
Who says no? The Rockies, who can likely get more value by trading Arenado and Blackmon separately.
3. South Siders finally land a superstar
White Sox get: 3B Nolan Arenado and cash
Rockies get: RHP Dylan Cease, OF Luis Alexander Basabe (White Sox No. 7 prospect) and C/1B Zack Collins (White Sox No. 9 prospect)
Why it could work: The White Sox have been trying to top off their rebuild by adding a star from outside the organization, landing Yasmani Grandal but missing on Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and Zack Wheeler over the last two winters. Enter Arenado, whose all-around game and leadership would boost the young roster. In this scenario, Yoán Moncada -- who had a breakout 2019 after moving from second to third base -- would put his speed and athleticism to use in center field, filling one of Chicago’s holes. And getting a significant amount of money (perhaps $30 million?) to help accommodate Arenado’s salary might motivate the Sox to move Cease. That would be a tough pill to swallow, but the club could turn to the free agent market for pitching help, or use second baseman Nick Madrigal (MLB’s No. 40 prospect) as trade bait while moving Moncada back to the keystone.
Speaking of Cease, the 23-year-old has electric stuff that misses bats, which is key at Coors Field, and he already has 73 big league innings (and 81 K's) under his belt. Also 23, Basabe is a little further away -- he was limited by injury to 74 games in 2019, mostly at Double-A -- but he’s a switch-hitter with speed, some pop and a good enough defensive profile to stick in center. Collins, like Cease, is just about ready after making his MLB debut this year, and he brings plenty of power and patience at the plate. While it’s unclear whether he has the receiving skills to catch full time, the Rockies would be able to give him the opportunity.
Who says no? The White Sox. Pitching remains a major area of need, and Chicago is counting on Cease to be a big part of the rotation in 2020. The White Sox could fill second base and center field with Madrigal and fellow prospect Luis Robert, respectively, allowing Moncada to avoid another position switch.
4. Phillies go BIG … again
Phillies get: 3B Nolan Arenado
Why it could work: Who says the Phillies can't still win the offseason for the second year in a row? This trade would require Philadelphia to exceed the $208 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold in 2020, but if the Rockies take back Bruce and Robertson, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, it would cut down the Phils' CBT number by $23.5 million and put them a Jean Segura trade away from getting under the tax line. Even if the Phillies pay the tax for one season, they have Jake Arrieta coming off the books next offseason, which would help them reset the penalty in 2021. Meanwhile, Arenado slides into the lineup alongside Bryce Harper for a club desperate to contend.
With Rhys Hoskins at first and their new big-ticket addition at third, the Phillies have no room for Bohm, who gives the Rockies a replacement for Arenado at the hot corner. Additionally, Colorado takes a chance on Medina, a former top-100 prospect whose stock has dropped.
Who says no? The Phillies. General manager Matt Klentak said he expects Bohm to contribute at some point in 2020. In the meantime, Scott Kingery can handle third base, with Segura at second and new addition Didi Gregorius at shortstop.
5. Hollywood homecoming
Dodgers get: 3B Nolan Arenado
Why it could work: With Rendon off the market, here’s another chance for the Dodgers to go big. In an effort to bring Los Angeles its first World Series title since 1988, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman diverts from his typically measured approach and pays a steep price to pry the third baseman from the team's National League West rival. Still, L.A. keeps its top two prospects (Dustin May and Gavin Lux), using enviable depth and resources to land an impact player.
The deal addresses two of Colorado's biggest needs (catching, pitching) and doesn't require the club to send any money back to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Arenado comes home to SoCal and gives the Dodgers' roster even more depth, perhaps opening the door for an additional blockbuster.
Who says no: The Rockies. The Dodgers' package may be fair value on paper, but Colorado is unlikely to send Arenado to its division rival without getting back Gavin Lux (Dodgers' No. 1 prospect, MLB's No. 2 overall) or Dustin May (Dodgers' No. 2, MLB's No. 32). It would be surprising to see L.A. trade either one of those youngsters this offseason.
6. Nolan goes north
Blue Jays get: 3B Nolan Arenado and cash
Rockies get: INF/OF Lourdes Gurriel Jr., C Danny Jansen, SS/3B Jordan Groshans (MLB’s No. 67 prospect)
Why it could work: While this Blue Jays regime hasn’t shown much inclination to take on a big salary, their young roster burdens them with little in the way of future financial commitments. By absorbing most of Arenado’s contract here, Toronto supercharges its rebuild with a proven superstar to slide in alongside its talented young position players -- Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. The Blue Jays remove the burden of playing third base from Vlad Jr. and either see how he handles first or use him as a designated hitter and allow his bat to do the talking.
In return, Colorado gets a talented young hitter and versatile defender who is under affordable team control through 2024 (Gurriel Jr.). Jansen struggled with the bat in '19 and may have been passed in Toronto by Reese McGuire, but the recent top-100 prospect makes for a nice buy-low play for a team with a catching need. Groshans, the No. 12 pick in the 2018 Draft, could be Arenado’s eventual replacement in Denver.
Who says no: The Blue Jays, mainly because they are unlikely to contend in 2020, even with Arenado. The third baseman could opt out after the '21 campaign, giving Toronto a small window to build a winning team while it is guaranteed to have Arenado on the roster.