Arenado Contract Leaves Many Scratching Heads

Baseball experts baffled by Rockies deal

Nolan Arenado, a third baseman was recently traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. Arenado’s trade has sparked uproar among fans and confusion among baseball experts. / JENNIFER LINNEA

With Major League Baseball’s spring training less than two weeks away, fans of the Colorado Rockies are lamenting the loss of star infielder Nolan Arenado in a Feb. 1 trade to the St. Louis Cardinals. The team’s explanation for the deal, which has been roundly criticized by observers of the sport as a giveaway, seems inconsistent with the likely overall financial health of the franchise. Weeks after the fact, many are still looking at the deal with confusion.

“If we had our druthers, we would have Nolan Arenado,’’ Rockies owner Dick Monfort said during a Feb. 2 news conference. “It was Nolan’s choice. He wanted to move on.”

The reality, though, is not so clearcut. Arenado had apparently grown dismayed by the failure of the team’s general manager, Jeff Bridich, to take seriously Arenado’s desire to play for a contender. The third baseman was quoted by the Denver Post in January 2020 as feeling “disrespected” by the team’s front office, particularly Bridich. That followed a disappointing season for the Rockies in 2019, when the Rox fell to 71-91 after two straight playoff seasons. “He got upset they weren’t building around him,” said USA Today national baseball columnist Bob Nightengale.

Bridich must consider the expectations of his bosses, Dick Monfort and Charlie Monfort, owners of the Rockies since 2005. What those expectations are do not seem to be seriously constrained by the value of the franchise or its prospects for revenues. 

“The financial health is still very strong,” Nightengale said. “It’s at least a $2 billion franchise right now.” Forbes and Statista do not rate the team’s value quite as highly — both valuing it at about $1.3 billion — but even that valuation indicates the Rockies are not in financial trouble. Nor is the team playing in a “small market,” despite the claim to the contrary advanced by Dick Monfort at the Feb. 2 press conference.

Forbes estimated last year that the Rockies’ annual revenue is $305 million. That includes about $20 million per year, through 2019, earned from a TV broadcasting deal that was renegotiated in Sept. 2019. The new deal is expected to double that annual broadcast rake for the team. Attendance is even more valuable. According to Statista, the team’s annual revenues from gate proceeds averaged $66 million during the first seven years of Arenado’s tenure on the roster. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, those revenues hit $73 million, $78 million and $80 million. “I think, really, they’re a medium market,” Nightengale said. “It’s over 30,000 fans a game. They [get] great revenue from attendance.” 

The team is also in a position to anticipate growing revenues and, therefore, value. 

The Rockies can look forward to a growing dollar flow as the Monfort brothers complete real estate developments near Coors Field. The planned McGregor Square, a 655,000-square foot commercial and residential complex being constructed west of the stadium and announced in 2019, will produce an expected $125 million over the next 30 years.

“By building in the area behind Coors Field, that’s a cash cow,” Nightengale said. “You don’t have to share that money with anybody else. If you get all these businesses to go with you — you know, condos and shops — that’s just a gold mine.” He said numerous other MLB franchises, including the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs and the Cardinals, have also used the technique to grow team revenues.

The team had also shown, when it signed star outfielder Charlie Blackmon to a six-year, $108 million dollar contract in 2018, that it was not deterred from investing in athletes. That was before Bridich announced, in February 2019, that the Rockies considered Arenado so important to the team’s continued prospects to win that they had signed him to a seven-year contract extension that would pay the third baseman $260 million. Arenado was paid $26 million for 2019 and would have received $234 million between 2020–2026. The deal, which Forbes magazine said made Arenado the highest-paid position player in the game at the time, also gave the slugger the right to opt out at the end of the 2021 season. “They changed that narrative” of being a team unwilling to pay to keep talented players when that deal and the 2019 Arenado extension was signed, Nightengale said. “They can do it.”

That’s why, to Nightengale, “the Arenado thing is just a complete disaster” and why Monfort’s Feb. 2 claim that the trade was necessary because Arenado wanted to leave is difficult to understand. “The Rockies were the one who said they put the opt out into it,” Nightengale said. “Even Arenado says, ‘no, Arenado was not going to opt out.’ He wasn’t going to leave that kind of money on the table.”

So, if Arenado wasn’t going to leave the Rockies before the end of 2021, and he could do so then only because the Rockies insisted on the opt-out clause in his 2019 contract extension, then there had to be another reason why the Rockies decided to dump his salary. 

Nightengale cannot figure out why they would do it before the 2021 season began. “Why not just call his bluff and say ‘Hey, you’re playing here all year. If you want to opt out after the year, it’s your right. 

If he doesn’t opt out, then trade him. But why give the Cardinals $51 million? Why pay for pretty much his entire salary in 2021? That one’s got everybody in the industry baffled.”

Nor did the Rockies likely lose bargaining power in the aftermath of Arenado’s trade demand a year ago. The Cardinals “were in on it a year ago,” when the Rockies “were asking for a ton of prospects,” which Nightengale thought appropriate. “You gave him away,” Nightengale said. “For one back end starter and, pretty much, four guys who are almost like lottery-type selections. You have no idea if they’ll be any good because they’re so young and have proven absolutely nothing.”

Arenado also is not likely to be seen as a risky investment because he’s approaching his thirties. “They just signed the guy,” Nightengale said. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the organization who thinks he’s on the decline. He’s still productive.”

Along with Arenado, the Cardinals get a $50 million infusion of cash from the Rockies. In return, the Rockies will receive little-used pitcher Austin Gomber and four minor league prospects. Arenado, 29, is considered one of baseball’s premiere players. During eight seasons, the five-time All Star he has built a reputation as one of the best fielding third basemen in the game and an accomplished batsman who has thrice led the National League in home runs and twice led the senior circuit in RBIs. To make the trade happen, Arenado agreed to extend his contract by an additional year at $15 million. The Cardinals agreed to let him keep an opt-out clause that is in effect this year and to add another to be operative at the end of the 2022 season. 

— Hank Lacey

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