St. Louis Cardinals, Nolan Arenado at a contract crossroads

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ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 03: Nolan Arenado #28 of the St. Louis Cardinals tosses his bat after grounding into a double play during the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium on September 3, 2022 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 03: Nolan Arenado #28 of the St. Louis Cardinals tosses his bat after grounding into a double play during the sixth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium on September 3, 2022 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images) /
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There’s already been a fair amount of drama and change for the St. Louis Cardinals so far this offseason

Since the St. Louis Cardinals were eliminated from the playoffs by the Phillies, there has been a flurry of activity with the Gateway City’s baseball franchise.  Adam Wainwright is returning for another season, while four coaches are not, including Skip Schumaker, who is the newest manager for the Miami Marlins.

That’s a lot of change before the World Series even began, but even more seismic movements could be on the horizon.  Certainly, Waino coming back for his final year wearing his No. 50 birds-on-the-bat jersey is a big deal for the pitching staff, but what about the team’s best defender and one of its top hitters?

The biggest storyline among position players is Nolan Arenado’s potential opt-out.  Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak has practically dared Arenado to walk back his previous proclamations of how much he enjoys St. Louis and opt out of his deal.  While there’s time to work something out, right now the ball is in Arenado’s court.

The star third baseman has a lot to think about.  He’s guaranteed $144M over the next five years if he doesn’t exercise his opt-out clause and remains in St. Louis.  That’s an average of $28.8M per year, which is among the better salaries in the game.

However, he very likely could do better financially if he did test free agency for the first time in his outstanding career.  Heading into his age-32 season, he could look at a fellow MVP contender, Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, who at the same age signed a six-year, $162 million contract.  Of course, Freeman also has $57M of that deal in deferred money.

Freeman may be a better overall hitter than Arenado, but Arenado clearly has a big edge with the leather.  He won a Gold Glove in every single one of his previous 10 seasons in the majors, and he’s a five-time Platinum Glove winner as the very best defensive player in the league.  He’s once again a finalist at the hot corner this year.

Arenado could reasonably expect to land something like a six-year, $180M contract on the free agent market.  He would have multiple teams vying for his services to drive up the price, and he would have his choice among multiple contending teams – the Dodgers and Giants possibly among them for the southern California native – allowing him to determine where he would fit in best and have the best opportunity to win a World Series.

And then there’s the perspective of the Cardinals front office.  Losing Arenado certainly would sting.  He’s a phenomenal fielder, a very strong hitter, and has demonstrated a strong desire to win.  Who wouldn’t want a player like that?

Well, if you’re Mozeliak, you also have payroll limitations, and freeing up nearly $29M per season would provide notable flexibility.  And the other Nolan, Nolan Gorman, came up through the minors as a third baseman.  Plus, all-world prospect Jordan Walker also has spent most of his professional career manning the hot corner.  Neither would be likely to replicate Arenado’s overall performance anytime in the near future – or quite possibly ever – but both will be earning minimum salaries for the next 2-3 seasons.

And then there are the Rockies, who are chipping in another $15M toward the Cardinals’ coffers no matter what Arenado does.  The wrinkle beyond next year is the $5M per season Colorado is on the hook for during the 2024′-27 seasons, a payment that goes away if Arenado opts out.

The front office certainly has to consider this mile-high contribution when deciding what to do about Arenado’s contract.  St. Louis actually is paying him just $124M over these next five years, and $50M of that is deferred money, further reducing the present-day value of the deal.  If Arenado opts out, how much more would he cost to bring back, and would he be willing to defer salary in a new deal?

Maybe a contract lawyer would need to weigh in, but it seems if the Cardinals were to tack on another year at something like $30M, it wouldn’t be considered a change to Arenado’s current contract.  The specific dollar amount might be adjusted up or down a bit, and perhaps a second year would need to be included, leading to an extension something like 2/$55M.  Something along these lines would seem to be sufficient for St. Louis to retain Arenado’s services.

Decisions, decisions.  It’s not clear cut what either side should do.  What’s clear is, within five days of the World Series ending, we’ll know which direction things are headed.

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