Cardinals owner, amid Nolan Arenado trade rumors, says team is not actively looking to make impact deal
The reigning NL Central champs have not done much this winter
By the standards of reigning division champions, the St. Louis Cardinals have had an uncommonly quiet winter. Right now, their notable moves include bringing in Korean lefty Kwang-hyun Kim as a swing man and re-upping with backup catcher Matt Wieters. Despite having an offense in 2019 that ranked 10th in the National League in runs scored and 12th in home runs -- and that got exposed in the NLCS sweep at the hands of the Nationals -- Cards brass has done nothing to improve that particular lot.
One possible solution credibly bandied about in recent weeks has been a blockbuster trade for Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, who remains one of the top two-way threats in all of baseball. While reports have differed in the seriousness of the Cardinals' trade talks with the Rockies, those talks have indeed happened. Now, though, team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. is here to dampen any possible enthusiasm on that front:
Of note is that Arenado is one year into an eight-year, $260 million extension. He's owed $35 million for each of the next five seasons before his annual salary scales down over the final two years of the deal. As well, Arenado has an opt-out after the 2021 season, so his contract in essence comes with just two guaranteed years of control.
In other words, if the Cardinals were to pull off an Arenado swap, ownership would insist that the Rockies either kick in large sum of cash or take on one of the Cardinals' less appealing contracts in return (probably Matt Carpenter or Dexter Fowler). The Rockies, though, are probably looking for maximum payroll relief in an Arenado trade, and such an arrangement may not interest them, especially if there's a potential trading partner that isn't looking for such offsets. All of that adds up to long odds that Arenado winds up with birds on his chest in time for the 2020 season.
This is the part where you should be questioning the commitment of ownership. Per Cot's Contracts/Baseball Prospectus, the Cardinals are still roughly $30 million under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold of $208 million. Going over that threshold elicits some penalties, and teams tend to over-respond to those incentives. Adding Arenado to the fold without send a contract back to Colorado would put the Cardinals over, and DeWitt and company have communicated no willingness to do that.
Where does that leave the Cardinals? At third base, they'll hope for a bounce-back season from Carpenter even though he's going into age-34 campaign, or they'll hope that Tommy Edman's 2019 outputs are sustainable (his minor-league track record and his batted ball indicators from last season suggest they may not be). In the outfield, they'll hope Fowler can continue to tread water and that one of the young outfielders emerges as a playable option in left. Beyond that, they'll be hoping that Harrison Bader in center can pair his defense with at least average numbers at the plate. Is Paul Goldschmidt in decline? That's a reasonable question to ask, and his 2019 numbers raise major concerns on that front. He was supposed to be the heart-of-the-order thumper that the Cardinals have lacked for so long, but it's possible those days are behind him.
Maybe a Marcell Ozuna reunion remains a possibility, but bear in mind that he put up an OPS+ of only 107 on the Cardinals' watch. That's nothing special for a corner outfielder who's at best average with the glove. Yes, Ozuna's 2017 upside and the fact that he's still on the right side of age 30 give him some upside, but it seems unlikely that he's going to hit that ceiling again.
The Cardinals' main threats in the NL Central, the Cubs, have done just as little this winter, and the Brewers have at best maintained their baseline. In that one sense, St. Louis can justify doing nothing more. To the end of improving a flawed offense, however, executives have strongly hinted that they're unwilling to make the necessary investments. Maybe they can persuade the Rockies to take on Carpenter's or, less likely, Fowler's contract and kick in cash to satisfy DeWitt and company, but that seems highly unlikely. Yes, Arenado is costly and presumably would opt out of his contract, but imagine adding his glove to what already may be the best infield defense in baseball and his bat to that power-starved lineup. "Imagine" would seem to be as close as the Cardinals will get, if DeWitt's comments are any guide.
To state the apparent roster ethos in simpler terms, if they didn't get any better, why should we?
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