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Obvious interest, complex trade: Cutting through the clutter on Arenado and the Cardinals

Obvious interest, complex trade: Cutting through the clutter on Arenado and the Cardinals

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Colorado Rockies vs St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis

Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado makes a play in a 2018 game against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. (Post-Dispatch photo by David Carson)

When the Cardinals headed to California to woo Giancarlo Stanton and try to convince him, in person, to waive his no-trade clause and accept the trade the Marlins had to St. Louis, they had an advocate already in the room, one who already had the ear of the reigning NL MVP.

His agent, Joel Wolfe, had spent his final season in the pros playing in the Cardinals’ minor-league system. He appeared in 72 games in 1996 for the same Class AA A-Travs team that had Joe McEwing, Eli Marrero, and future Cardinals’ No. 1 starter Matt Morris. That time, coupled with his time as an agent, had given Wolfe a feel for the Cardinals’ message that he wanted his client, Stanton, to understand.

“They talked a lot about the history of the franchise, and the culture, which is important to him,” Wolfe told Post-Dispatch sports columnist Ben Frederickson.

“I wanted him to hear that.”

So here the Cardinals are again trying to discuss and explore the possibility of trading for another MVP-caliber player, Nolan Arenado, who like Stanton has significant power when it comes to forcing and approving a deal. The Cardinals, according to multiple sources, have had longstanding interest in Arenado. They wondered if the Rockies were going to trade him a year ago before he signed an extension, and they have had discussions with the Rockies at least dating back before trading for Paul Goldschmidt in Dec. 2018.

Arenado must approve any trade, but his willingness to rework his opt-out after the 2021 season could also be key to any deal. Any team, the Cardinals included, would like a chance to discuss the opt-out, if possible. Arenado must be sold on the new team and would clearly want to hear about its ability to contend into the future.

Oh, and, Wolfe is his agent.

This past weekend, the Arenado possibilities caused a tempest on Twitter. There was wild speculation, repeated reporting, grounded musing, and irresponsible guessing. It was Twitter in all its glory. Asked about this Wild Wild West of rumor conjuring about Arenado during his weekly appearance on KMOX/1120 AM, John Mozeliak, the Cardinals president of baseball operations, declined to discuss a specific player. He did, however, state that “90 percent to 95 percent of it is untrue.”

Cue the Jim Carrey GIFs.

Let’s discuss that 5 percent to 10 percent.

In the burst of coverage this past week there was notable news when it comes to the Cardinals and any possible trade for Arenado. As mentioned previously, the Cardinals' interest in Arenado has been established before, at The Post-Dispatch and elsewhere. The Cardinals have, in the past, found the Rockies’ asking price prohibitive, according to sources. The Denver Post and elsewhere reported that the Rockies are entertaining discussions about Arenado.

A report on ESPN.com forwarded the conversation with this revelation: During these discussions about a trade “two teams in particular have intrigued them, according to sources: the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.” In short, the report stated the Cardinals had players who interested the Rockies. It said nothing of the Cardinals' willingness to part with these prospects. The Cardinals have zero interest in conversations that would include Jack Flaherty, and the team also views outfielder Dylan Carlson as a player they intend to keep out of trade talks. In previous discussions, I’ve mentioned how Harrison Bader should have an obvious appeal for the Rockies, and there are other prospects that fit such as Nolan Gorman, Malcom Nunez, Andrew Knizner and newcomer Matthew Liberatore, a lefty acquired from Tampa Bay.

MLB Network’s Ken Rosenthal has mapped the Rockies’ Arenado Situation since September, arguing that it was time for the Rockies to consider trading him and later writing that they were exploring that possibility. On Monday morning, during a hit on MLB Network, Rosenthal said Texas’ acquisition of third baseman Todd Frazier did not remove the Rangers from Arenado pursuit because Frazier will play a “position to be determined.” Last week, Rosenthal wrote on The Athletic (subscription) that an Arenado trade “is starting to look inevitable.” He defined that “inevitable” timetable as some time before the July 31 trade deadline.

The Rockies could use the urgency of deadline to increase the return.

Arenado would still have the final say.

Those two “intrigue” and “inevitable” reports, along with the coverage at The Post-Dispatch and Denver Post about the Cardinals’ interest and Rockies’ actions, offer lodestars for what is known about these discussions and what we know of the Cardinals’ level of interest. It is not clear, through my reporting, how aggressive the Cardinals are being. The rest is misdirection, speculation, or just noise at this point. Cardinals officials have declined comment, saying only that they will continue to look for ways to improve the team.

What else is known is how the Cardinals and other teams see Arenado discussions as a Gordian Knot. One source has described them often as “hurdles” to the deal. Arenado has the no-trade clause, and he has the opt-out after the 2021 season. And that’s before a team has to consider the asking price and whether Colorado wants a return on the potential years of control (through 2026) or actual with opt-out (2021). The Rockies are going to want the former; the interested team the latter.

Teams like the Cardinals are going to want to address the opt-out — but the timing of doing that could increase Colorado’s ask. The Cardinals could make the bet they did with Goldschmidt, Scott Rolen, Matt Holliday and others, and get the player to stay after they’ve worked out a trade based on the two-year guarantee. See, it’s tricky.

There is $234 million and seven years remaining on the guaranteed deal. With their current player expenses, the Cardinals do not find adding Arenado’s $35 million salary to the payroll palatable at the moment, a source said.

That payroll does ease up after 2021.

Kind of.

The Cardinals have three players — Miles Mikolas and the two Pauls, Goldschmidt and DeJong — signed beyond the 2021 season. They have committed $49.2 million to those three. That is not the relief it seems. The Cardinals have shown their hand with such flexibility because after 2021, Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks, Bader and Alex Reyes all will be into their arbitration. Flaherty will likely be coming up on his second year of arbitration. And the Cardinals are braced for Flaherty to see a monster (record?) raise and challenge how far they’ll try to go to sign him to an extension.

That pending spending is very much on the Cardinals’ minds as they consider moves, whether it’s a trade or a high-priced reunion with cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna.

Back when the Cardinals and Marlins agreed on a deal for Stanton, part of the trade was the Cardinals absorbing around $250 million of Stanton’s remaining contract. Stanton declined the move to St. Louis. He pointed the Marlins toward four teams — the final four teams in the 2017 playoffs, of course — and Miami had to work out a deal within those guardrails. Arenado has similar control, his hands on the wheel, and the ability to steer the direction he goes. Stanton got his wish, with the Yankees working out a deal that sent two prospects and Starlin Castro to the Marlins. The Marlins covered some of Stanton’s remaining salary, and they took on the remainder of Castro’s contract. One of the prospects in the deal just turned 20.

If Colorado’s sole motivation was to unload the contract and Arenado’s deal was like Stanton’s, then there would be a framework for these talks. Colorado’s motivation — quick reset? unloading money? dropping payroll for future spending? diving into a rebuild? — is the key to knowing the asking price.

But, once again, the opt-out is the wrinkle.

Less than 12 months ago, Arenado and the Rockies agreed on an eight-year, $260-million deal that secured him as the Face of the Franchise for the sweet spot of his career. The headline in The New York Times captured the perceived sentiment: “Nolan Arenado Would Rather Lead the Rockies Than Test the Market.” In that story, baseball writer Tyler Kepner describes how after agreeing to the deal Arenado went to his spring training home and watched video with Wolfe of Adrian Beltre and former Cardinals great Rolen. His peers at the hot corner.

If Arenado is disillusioned about the Rockies’ direction this soon afterward and would jump at a trade, then what’s the guarantee he won’t use the next team as a two-year stepping stone to where he wants to be? That would be his right. Bully for him. He’s earned it. Any team interested has to be aware of that, and also aware that two years from now, when he’s still entering his 30s, he could be a free agent.

That is the same winter Matt Carpenter’s guaranteed contract ends.

That is the same winter payroll room awaits the Cardinals.

No wonder the Cardinals stay in contact with teams about players they target.

At the least, it’s a dress rehearsal.

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