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BenFred: Cardinals' track record suggests hurdles for Arenado deal would be too high

BenFred: Cardinals' track record suggests hurdles for Arenado deal would be too high

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Matthew Liberatore doesn't know it yet, but he was traded twice Thursday.

Before they could find out who was joining the Rays’ prized pitching prospect in the package sent to St. Louis from Tampa, Cardinals fans had shipped the 20-year-old southpaw to Colorado.

Don’t take it personally, Liberatore.

It's just a side effect of Nolan Arenado Obsession.

Most trades are judged by answering two questions.

Who did the Cardinals get? Who did the Cardinals give up?

Thursday night revolved around a third. When will the Cardinals flip Liberatore for Arenado?

Here's an unpopular answer: They probably won't.

Because that path, the one that would end with the front office taking a long victory lap, is filled with some high hurdles.

The Cardinals know this, because they put some of the highest in place.

To decrease the chance of this explanation getting twisted, let’s get some cornerstone facts out of the way.

1. Arenado is baseball’s best third baseman playing today. He hits a ton. He's arguably the best defender at the position, ever. He’s just 28 years old. He is not overrated. He is a true superstar still on the right side of his prime.

2. Considering the lackluster production the Cardinals got at third last season, adding Arenado would be a home-run addition that would automatically make the Cardinals a World Series contender and significantly upgrade a lineup that looks shaky if free agent outfielder Marcell Ozuna returns, and suspect if he doesn't.

3. The Cardinals have coveted Arenado for a long time.

Now, let’s reach for the bucket of cold water. Make that buckets.

1. Cardinals chairman Bill Dewitt Jr. said the team is not planning on significantly increasing payroll. Good luck finding a way to add Arenado’s hefty contract without a spike. He’s owed $35 million in 2020 on a contract that has seven years and $234 million left. For context, Paul Goldschmidt landed the biggest contract in club history last spring. That was a five-year deal worth $130 million. (Before comparing the Goldschmidt trade to a potential Arenado trade, remember the ages. Goldschmidt was coming off his age-30 season. Arenado's coming off his age-28 season.)

2. Arenado's contract has an opt-out after the 2021 season, meaning he could enter full-blown free agency after the 2021 season if his play presents a chance to land an even bigger deal, or if he wants to use his leverage to land with a team more likely to win a World Series. Yes, there is a chance that Arenado could agree to give up his opt-out in a renegotiated contract with a new team. No, there are not many reasons that would make sense for Arenado, unless he’s just that desperate to get out of Colorado.

That opt-out is significant, when you consider how the Cardinals view trades. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak has often said a trade package must be built upon the guaranteed years the player who is traded for will be in uniform, not the hope that the player accepts an extension or declines an opt-out. There could be a significant gap between what the Cardinals view as a fair trade for two guaranteed years of Arenado, and what the Rockies view as a fair trade for Arenado’s full contract.

3. The Cardinals in April handed third baseman Matt Carpenter a regrettable extension that pays him a guaranteed $37 million through the 2021 season. Carpenter has to green-light any trade, if the Cardinals were able to find a taker.

4. Despite Carpenter’s career-worst 2019, the Cardinals have taken every opportunity to present him as the starting third baseman entering 2020. Shrug that off as posturing if you please, but this approach is very similar to how the Cardinals handled Dexter Fowler after his career-worst 2018. The Cardinals followed through then.

Fowler, like Carpenter, was a veteran player with a no-trade clause who had little trade value at the time. Carpenter, unlike Fowler, has spent his entire career with the Cardinals, and was the recipient of an extension that was given to him, in part, because the front office wanted to see him finish his career with the team. Carpenter has always been willing to bounce around based on what the team needs, and he would likely do that again if asked. But the team has thoroughly dismissed the notion of Carpenter spending time in the outfield again. Whether you believe Carpenter can bounce back or not, it would be rare for the Cardinals to use such an established player as a decoy.

5. The Cardinals have been connected to no other third basemen in an offseason dominated by them. Anthony Rendon was not on the Cardinals’ radar. Neither was Mike Moustakas. Josh Donaldson doesn’t seem to be this time around. A team that makes the costly trade for Arenado probably views third base as more of a need than a potential upgrade, right? (It's easy to imagine the Cardinals and Rockies having a lot more to talk about at this year's trade deadline.)

6. The Cardinals have gone out of their way to limit expectations about their offseason to-do list.

They presented a plan to bolster pitching and condense some of their right-handed hitting outfielders. They added Kwang Hyun Kim, a starting pitcher from Korea they hope turns into a steal. On Thursday, they tapped into the outfield depth for a talented young arm. They remain engaged with free agent outfielder Ozuna, just like they said they would.

The Cardinals keep saying this offseason is not about "winning the offseason."

An Arenado trade would be the exact opposite.

If it happens, the Cardinals will have done a stellar job of misdirection.

Here’s another unpopular alternative: Perhaps they’re just telling the truth.

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