It feels like a lifetime ago that Rockies star Nolan Arenado said he felt the organization showed him " " over the winter. That was back in January. , then Major League Baseball shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, and trade rumors were suddenly the last thing on everyone's mind.
For the first time since MLB shut down two months ago, . MLB and the MLBPA are discussing a various of shutdown-related issues, , and the hope is Opening Day can take place in early July. If that happens, it won't be long before we start thinking about trades again.
"There's a lot of disrespect from people there that I don't want to be a part of," Arenado said in January, less than a year after signing an eight-year contract extension worth $260 million. He is not upset about the contract though. Hardly. Arenado is upset the Rockies did next to nothing over the winter to improve a roster that went 71-91 a year ago, including 27-52 in their final 79 games.
To recap, here are Colorado's offseason transactions:
- Signed Scott Oberg (three years, $13 million) and Trevor Story (two years, $27.5 million) to extensions.
- Signed righty Jose Mujica to a major league contract. He is coming back from Tommy John surgery.
- Signed 12 players to minor league deals, most notably Drew Butera, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Chris Owings.
That's it. Mujica, who has never pitched in the big leagues, was the team's only major league free agent signing. Oberg's extension bought out one free agent year with an option for another free agent year. Story's extension bought out his final two arbitration years and no free agent years. The minor league deals? Every team gives out a dozen or so of those each winter.
From Arenado's perspective, he committed to the Rockies after the team went to the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history in 2017-18, then the front office did basically nothing to improve following a poor 2019 season. He could've become a free agent this past offseason but didn't, and that's how they plan to move forward with him him? I can understand feeling disrespected.
"With the season coming up and spring training on the horizon, we are going to start focusing on that," Rockies GM Jeff Bridich said in January. "We have listened to teams regarding Nolan and really nothing has come of it. We are going to move forward pretty much as we expected -- with Nolan in the purple and black and as our third baseman. So we can put this to bed and collectively look forward to the upcoming season and work toward that."
Arenado's contract gives him a lot of leverage. He has a full no-trade clause, so he's in total control of his future, and the contract includes an opt-out after 2021. Triggering the opt out would leave five years and $164 million on the table. Opting out seemed crazy a year ago. Free agency rebounded in a huge way this past offseason though. Using the opt out seemed plausible back in January.
When Arenado made his comments in January, his situation was very similar to Giancarlo Stanton's with the Marlins. Like Stanton three years ago, Arenado is upset with the team's direction, he has a full no-trade clause, only a handful of teams can afford to take on his contract, and the opt out allows him to walk away in the not-too-distant future. "Trade me now or I walk soon," basically.
Stanton used his leverage to facilitate a trade to the Yankees -- before going to New York, remember -- and the Marlins received little in return for the reigning NL MVP. Starlin Castro, two mid-range prospects, and a ton of salary relief. That's it. Arenado had the leverage to paint the Rockies into the same corner Stanton painted Miami.
That was the situation in January and a lot -- a lot -- has changed since then. Arenado reported to spring training and, while he said all the right things at the time, it was clear he was still frustrated with the organization. Here's what he told Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports in February:
"To be honest with you, there is a disconnect right now, right?" he said Friday. "There's a little bit of a disconnect. But that doesn't mean it can't be fixed. It doesn't mean that I'm not gonna go out there and play hard for my teammates. Or be a negative presence in that locker room. That's just not me. It's not how I'm going to do things. I'm not going to be there trying to show them I don't want to be there. I'm not going to be that way. That's not fair. That's drawing attention to me.
"I know there's already been attention toward me right now. That's not really my style. I'm not trying to put my teammates in a bad position. You know? That's not really my thing. They know I'm going to go out there and play hard. There is a little bit of a disconnect for sure. But, like I said, that doesn't mean I can't go out there and play hard. That doesn't mean that I'm going to have a bad attitude. It means there's a disconnect. And I've got to move on from it. I don't need to surround myself with the negativity, because that's going to factor in my performance."
A month later the COVID-19 pandemic forced baseball to close its doors and they remain shut to this day. Even if the 2020 season can start in July as hoped, the sport's financial landscape has changed dramatically.and teams are furloughing baseball operations employees because there is no revenue coming in at the moment.
The financial recovery will take years. Even after we get the thumbs up to hold large public gatherings, we won't see full stadiums right away because some folks will be wary of crowds. MLB will surely seek out other revenue streams () in the interim, but it'll be a while until gate revenue returns to normal. It could be a few years before MLB tops $10 billion in revenue again.
The owners will pass the financial burden down to the players. Already one owner has instructed his baseball operations people to cut payroll next season ...
At least one MLB ownership group has instructed its front office to cut its payroll in 2021. A lot of club execs expect others to follow. The youngest players (who are paid little, per CBA agreement) and the players with existing long-term deals won't necessarily be affected.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) May 7, 2020
... and I'd bet the farm on other owners having done the same. Free agency will not be as robust in future years and even arbitration could take a hit as teams get their payroll in order. There's already speculation we could see widespread non-tenders this winter. Why pay seven figures for your sixth or seventh reliever when you can find someone to do the same job for the league minimum?
The shutdown and the long-term financial impact has changed the Arenado trade calculus. Suddenly opting out after next season doesn't look so appealing. Arenado will turn 31 shortly after Opening Day 2021, and teams are hesitant to pay big money to players on the wrong side of 30. It's much harder to see a soon-to-be 31-year-old Arenado beating $164 million now than it was in January.
With the opt out no longer in play, or at least a less viable option, the Rockies suddenly have a little less urgency to move Arenado. They don't have to worry about him walking away in two years. He still controls his destiny via the no-trade clause, and no team wants an unhappy superstar, but the opt out is no longer forcing their hand. The Rockies have a clearer path to keeping Arenado.
Furthermore, even if the Rockies want to trade Arenado, moving that contract will be much more difficult now than it was before the shutdown. Teams are going to cut payroll going forward and taking on a player making more than $30 million a year, even a great player like Arenado, may no longer be feasible. Finding a team willing to take on that contract might very well be impossible.
I see two possible outcomes now. One, the Rockies trade Arenado. They would almost certainly have to eat money to facilitate a trade, potentially a lot of it, and they'd still have to navigate his no-trade clause, but it's doable. Paying Arenado a lot of money to play for another team doesn't seem like a great idea. It can be done though. Lots of teams pay players to play elsewhere.
And two, the Rockies keep Arenado, and the two sides figure out a way to coexist. He's a competitor and he wants to win -- "I have seven years left on my deal. I don't know how it's all going to turn out. And I want to win," Arenado told Brown in February -- and the Rockies will have to do something to improve the roster around him to make it happen, because as constituted, it ain't good.
Even if the 2020 season gets wiped out and Arenado does not receive his $35 million salary this year, he will have still banked close to $100 million in player contracts when his opt out decision arrives. Perhaps that's enough to say, "Screw it, I'm going to opt out even if I don't match the $164 million I have coming to me because I want to go somewhere I can win." It's not impossible.
I would bet against it though. Money still talks. The shutdown has likely eliminated the opt out as a viable option and Arenado is no longer in position to force his way out. That backdoor has been slammed shut. The Rockies can try to trade him, but the money will be an obstacle, and keeping him long-term is more realistic. It's preferable, really. You should want to keep a player like Arenado.
Once MLB and the MLBPA figure out a way to safely play baseball this season, the Rockies and Arenado can begin to repair their relationship. If they're unable to mend fences, they can move onto Plan B, which is a trade. The shutdown complicates that though. The sport's financial landscape has changed dramatically. The two sides may have no choice but to make it work now.