Trades of franchise players have become an awkward staple of baseball offseasons in recent years. Just a month ago, Cleveland traded dynamic shortstop Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets. The front office didn’t think it could afford to pay him in the long run and field a competitive team around him.
Last February, the Boston Red Sox offloaded Mookie Betts to the eventual World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Betts was almost certainly headed to free agency and the kind of megadeal — 12 years and $365 million — the Dodgers eventually gave him. By keeping him, the Red Sox risked losing him for nothing. By trading him, they enticed the Dodgers to take on David Price’s behemoth salary and got useful prospects in return.
Fans of teams offloading a superstar didn’t like those deals and others similar to them. But they often understand them — they spot a prospect they can dream on or see the benefit of salary relief. The Arenado trade, though, felt particularly dismal.
When Arenado signed an eight-year extension before the 2019 season, the plan was to build around the standout third baseman. By the time the Rockies traded him, even they couldn’t hide their disappointment.
“I understand how [fans] feel. To be quite honest, I would probably feel the same way,” team owner and CEO Dick Monfort said during a bleak virtual news conference Tuesday morning. “Maybe I do even feel the same way.”
The trade, at least according to Monfort and those who made it, was less about money than Arenado’s desire to play elsewhere, something they said he had expressed before last season and had not wavered on.
“When I signed in Colorado, I signed with the intent to be there for the rest of my career. That was the intent,” Arenado said when the Cardinals introduced him Tuesday. “But it wasn’t meant to be. The last few years have been tough. I know a lot of people are probably bothered by this, but I’m not the first contract to get moved after a couple years.”
Two years after they signed him to that long-term extension, the Rockies had become so certain of Arenado’s intention to depart that, despite never being told so explicitly, they assumed he would use the opt-out written into his massive contract after next season. He had publicly called General Manager Jeff Bridich “disrespectful.” His relationship with the franchise had deteriorated.
“To be quite honest, in all our conversations with him, he never said it was this or that or whatever,” Monfort said. “We had the choice of waiting till the end of the year and letting him opt out ... but the result was the same. So in dealing with this, we tried to find a way to get the greatest return possible.”
Monfort suggested reports that his team was sending $51 million to the Cardinals with Arenado were not exactly accurate, but he did acknowledge Colorado was sending some money along with its prized superstar in exchange for left-hander Austin Gomber and four minor leaguers. Finances, he claimed, were not part of the decision. “This was Nolan’s decision,” Monfort said, adding that he anguished over the move and felt, at times, it didn’t make sense.
Bridich, for his part, told reporters the trade does not foretell a total teardown. If the Rockies were rebuilding — at least in the full-fledged sense of the word — they would have traded other high-priced players by now, too. He said they believe they can compete in the National League West and defended their commitment to doing so.
Both owner and GM pointed to long-term deals given to outfielder Charlie Blackmon and starting pitcher Germán Márquez to argue the team’s willingness to pay top talent should not be in question. Indeed, the Rockies have not cowered from the market lately. They have spent $229 million on seven free agents over the past few years — utility man Ian Desmond, infielder Daniel Murphy, and relievers Wade Davis, Mike Dunn, Jake McGee, Jason Motte and Bryan Shaw — but those moves did not come close to paying off. As the Rockies went from playoff hopeful to playoff team in 2017 and 2018 to disappointment in 2019 and 2020, those seven players combined for minus-2.8 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.
Monfort said developing pitching will be key to the franchise’s future, in part so he and Bridich can avoid “the free agent market, which has not treated us well on relief pitching.”
As those they did sign failed to lift them, the Rockies let DJ LeMahieu walk to the New York Yankees, where he provided 2.5 WAR in the shortened 2020 season.
“In hindsight, losing DJ was a big deal,” Monfort said. “We wish we could redo that.”
On Tuesday, the Rockies acknowledged the strange reality that they were forced to trade the franchise player they hoped to build around not because of money but because that player simply wanted out.
“It’s not always peaches and cream,” Bridich admitted during the news conference, which he punctuated with several post-breakup platitudes, such as “people change” and “sometimes relationships don’t last forever.”
“If you’re looking to pass blame, you can blame me,” he said. Monfort did not say whether he agreed with Bridich’s placement of responsibility, but he did say he had not considered firing him.
A time zone and an entire mood away, the Cardinals virtually introduced Arenado to St. Louis reporters. John Mozeliak, their president of baseball operations, had seen fit to include an exclamation point — a news release rarity — in his official comment about the trade Monday night.
“Today we got better!” he wrote in that statement, which was followed by a relatively gleeful news conference in which owner Bill DeWitt Jr. emphasized the importance of building from within to the long-term sustainability of an organization.
“It’s very difficult to [build] from the outside by making trades or signing free agents. We’ve been fortunate that the players we have secured over the years have done the job,” said DeWitt, whose team is now a clear favorite in the tight-pocketed NL Central. Since 2011, the Cardinals have won more games than every team but the free-spending Dodgers and Yankees. “We’ve never stopped trying, and we never will as long as I’m here,” he added.
Arenado wouldn’t bite on questions about the state of the Rockies. He said his relationship with the team is “just fine.”
“I’m not going to speak here and talk about the bad things,” he said before catching himself. “There’s no bad things. ... I’m not really part of that team anymore, and I don’t have a whole lot to say about where they’re headed or where they’re not.”