In the dark of winter but under the lights of Allie P. Reynolds Stadium, the old home of Oklahoma State’s juggernaut baseball team, Matt Holliday’s oldest son stood at shortstop and beside him the third baseman, a guest by the name of Nolan Arenado, set their goal:
Thirty consecutive grounders, no misses.
Fitting. That also happened to be the temperature.
“I’m hitting grounders, and you can see your breath. Thankfully, it wasn’t windy,” Holliday said. “Nolan is about as serious about baseball as anybody I’ve ever been around. ... He’s hitting a lot. He takes a lot of ground balls. He’s not one of those guys who takes a month off. He jumps right back into it. He loves it. He loves it.”
Few peers know the All-Star better than his former teammate and host that night in Stillwater, Okla., and only Holliday has been in the same spot Arenado is now — a Colorado Rockies star, long coveted by the Cardinals, and on the brink of joining them.
After more than a year of recurring and sometimes frustrated conversations between the Cardinals and Colorado, what’s another weekend of waiting for official approval? The Cardinals and Rockies have an agreement in principle on a trade that would bring the five-time All-Star to third base in St. Louis, multiple sources confirmed. The deal was not finalized Saturday because it has financial components that must be approved by Major League Baseball and contract complexities accepted by the players’ union.
Arenado, 29, has agreed to waive his no-trade clause to be a Cardinal, two sources confirmed, and an opt-out in his contract gives him the right to be a free agent after the 2021 season. Arenado has agreed to defer money, a source confirmed, and as part of modifying his contract the Cardinals have added another year, 2027, if he does not opt out.
Those rewrites, along with the reported $50 million the Rockies are sending the Cardinals, are a few of the gears in this intricate clockwork of this creative deal that must be unwound and approved by officials. At it’s core the trade is a familiar move for the Cardinals, the same as they hatched for Holliday: Get him in, give him time, win with him, and keep him long term.
Holliday has heard an echo from Arenado.
“He loves to win, and he wears wins and losses, and he wears losses pretty hard,” Holliday said. “I think that’s how this began to happen. He wants to win. The contract is important as far as taking care of his family. But at this point he was willing to defer, sacrifice, whatever it took to get to a year-in, year-out competitive environment.”
Holliday, who the Cardinals acquired in 2009 from Oakland when they couldn’t complete a deal with Colorado for him in 2008, offered a hint last Wednesday of the week to come during an appearance with Dan McLaughlin on WXOS (101.1 FM). He acknowledged the fans’ frustration with the inactive winter and then added that there might be some “kind of roster moves coming that fans will get excited about.”
In the next 48 hours, the Cardinals finalized a one-year contract with Adam Wainwright, made progress toward a one-year deal they expect to complete with Yadier Molina soon, and had a trade for Arenado accelerate toward a climax.
The players returning to the Rockies have not been confirmed and several of the players connected to the trade have not been notified of any move as of Saturday. That would come after approval. The Rockies have expressed interest in lefty Austin Gomber, a source confirmed. And other players discussed by the teams have included Jake Woodford, young, rising outfielder Jhon Torres, and at some points Luken Baker.
The Cardinals’ perennial interest in trading for Arenado had often left them stymied, either by Colorado’s asking price, the financial weight of Arenado’s contract, or gauging the Rockies’ motivation. Earlier this month, a source aware of the Cardinals’ discussions described how they were revisiting the same riddle with the Rockies, but whether it was more talk or actual movement was uncertain.
By last Monday, the movement was clear as some elements of the trade were agreed upon crystallized, and a source described the possibility Friday as “very real.” Cardinals players joined in the optimism as Wainwright teased “goodness” coming during his news conference for his one-year, $8-million deal, and Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty used GIFs on Twitter to first express joyous surprise — and then celebration. One clip he used was of a student dancing, another of former Denver Nugget Allen Iverson clapping and nodding.
The bottom line
What has lifted these negotiations over past hurdles appears to be Colorado’s willingness to include a substantial amount of money to cover some of the $199-million remaining on his deal so that they don’t have to cover all of it, or risk him opting out to become a free agent and not acquiring anything more than a draft pick.
Arenado signed an eight-year, $260-million extension in 2019. He would keep the no-trade clause and opt-out that came with that deal, and with the added year from the Cardinals could have a deal worth an additional $15 million, a source confirmed. The Athletic reported Arenado also will have an opt-out after 2022.
Holliday has watched all of this unfold as a friend, and he’s been one of several former or current Cardinals Arenado has talked to about what the franchise is like, and if it’s a fit.
A California kid, Arenado has visited Holliday in Oklahoma during the winter to spend a week working out with him, some Oklahoma State players and Holliday’s sons Jackson and Ethan. Arenado and his brother are fierce Wiffleball competitors, and there’s plans for “a World Series of Wiffleball” at a field Holliday has in Stillwater.
Holliday described how Arenado is such a true fan of baseball that he would watch Oklahoma State’s games during the year and text players or Holliday about how they played.
‘Attention to detail’
A teammate of Arenado’s in 2018, Holliday has learned a lot from watching the eight-time Gold Glove winner as he works out.
“The attention to detail on his craft,” Holliday said. “He’s obviously at the top of the food chain as far as baseball players go. He’s always thinking about how he can do better, what about the previous season didn’t feel quite right. Watching him take ground balls on a day to day basis — the intent, the focus. It’s as if every ground ball looks likes he’s taking a World Series ground ball. That’s what has created one of the greatest defenders of all time.”
And that’s who was standing beside Jackson, 17, that night a little more than a year ago.
Arenado took Jackson through the ground-ball workout. They worked on double play turns — with a stopwatch to get them faster and faster and faster. Matt Holliday chopped grounders to their backhands, to their forehands, running in, over the line, and they made their way to 30 consecutive. In the work Jackson does without Arenado, Holliday sees the influence of working with Arenado.
“As far as the attention to detail, I think he cannot help but notice the concentration level and looking every ball into his glove, the overemphasis on all the fundamentals, and how he doesn’t nonchalant anything,” Holliday said. “He doesn’t just get loose. Every ball has purpose. You can’t help but notice those things as an aspiring young player. Here’s an eight-time Gold Glove winner and he’s out here in 35 degrees in Stillwater, Okla., three months out from the season, and he’s focused on every ground ball.