Friday was a big day for the St. Louis Cardinals. In a division that is up for grabs between four teams, and in a division where not a single team has made any sort of free agent signing, nor a trade that seems to have improved the team rather than simply saved the team money, the Cardinals made two moves that moved the needle. The big deal was their trade to acquire third baseman Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies. Earlier in the day, though, they also signed free agent Adam Wainwright and brought him back to St. Louis.
The deal to acquire Nolan Arenado has left nearly everyone outside of the Rockies front office scratching their head. The Cardinals are giving up zero of their top prospects. St. Louis doesn’t even have a strong farm system, so it’s not as if they are loaded and are still moving strong prospects in the deal – as ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel noted last night, it seems the Rockies will be acquiring 40 FV players in the deal. A 40 FV (Future Value) player is described as a bench player or solid middle reliever at the Major League level. Oh, and the Cardinals are also getting $50,000,000 in cash from the Rockies for acquiring the best player that Colorado has had in nearly two decades.
The deal still requires approval from Major League Baseball and the Players Association because of all of the money involved, as well as the restructuring of the contract which reportedly will now include a new, second opt out (following the 2022 season – it already includes one following the 2021 season), as well as deferred money, and an additional season at the back end of the deal. As things stand now, without the additional year and money on the back end, Arenado is signed through 2026 and is due $199,000,000. He also has bonuses available for Top 5 MVP spots, various awards, All-Star game appearances, and Gold Gloves.
There’s the Colorado factor that needs to be accounted for – Coors Field certainly helps hitters. But Arenado’s adjusted stats still make him one of the best players around. From 2015-2019 he averaged 6.3 WAR (Baseball Reference version). He’s above-average at the plate and in the field. Marcels projection system foresees a .284/.354/.518 line for him in 2021, while ZiPS is projecting a .289/.354/.534 line for him in 2021.
There are two things that come up when discussing Nolan Arenado. The first is “but look at his home/road splits!” and the second is that he hit just .253/.303/.434 in 2020 over his 48 games played. Let’s start with the latter. Arenado had the lowest walk rate he’s had since 2015 – just 7.5%. He’s never walked a ton, but that’s a dip from the 9.5% walk rate he had from 2016-2019. His strikeout rate also went down, posting a 10% strikeout rate on the year, which was easily the lowest of his career and bordering on an elite contact rate. His power went down, and his BABIP was a career low .241.
His exit velocity, on average, was down, too – his 87.8 MPH average was below the league average and the lowest of his career, too. With that said, he’s never had a particularly strong exit velocity dating back to 2015 when it began to be measured – his career rate is just 89.5 MPH.
2021 was just a strange season for so many players. Christian Yelich entered 2020 with some making the argument he had caught up to, and perhaps even passed Mike Trout as the best player in baseball. Then Yelich went out and and hit .205/.356/.430. He’s hardly the only player who saw a big decline in his production, though he is the most notable.
If Nolan Arenado performs as expected moving forward, this gain for the Cardinals is enormous. He’s immediately one of the best players in the division.
The Cardinals also brought back Adam Wainwright. After some struggles from 2016-2018, he’s bounced back a bit in the last two seasons. In 41 starts he’s posted a 3.91 ERA (109 ERA+) with a 1.32 WHIP for St. Louis. He’s been a bit better than league average the last two years. A difference maker, a top of the rotation guy – he’s not that. But he’s a solid starter who has pitched well recently and gives them some depth and reliability for 2021.
The Cardinals two moves on Friday put them in a position that may make them the favorites in the division as things stand now.
Where does that leave Cincinnati? Well, when this article began to be typed, Didi Gregorius was still available as an option at shortstop. But by the time this sentence started he had signed a 2-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies for $28,000,000. Shortstop was the one position that there was a clear upgrade path for. It was the one stated goal the team made this offseason – find a shortstop for 2021. The path for an upgrade at this point doesn’t seem to be there on the free agent market, at least for a true upgrade. None of the four big free agents remain. Making a trade is still an option that’s out there, but that involves taking on salary as well as moving away players to complete the deal.
The offseason isn’t over yet. Opening Day is still two months away. But the Reds have been rather inactive all winter and the one position they’ve stated they were looking to change has seen the options come off of the board left-and-right with the organization coming up empty. They, along with the Oakland Athletics, remain in the market for a shortstop. It’s time to figure out a solution.