March 23, 2023

Nolan Arenado
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Say this for the Cardinals: They do a very good job of keeping the band together. On Wednesday, the news broke that Adam Wainwright will return to the team for his 19th and final major league season. On Saturday, St. Louis revealed that Nolan Arenado has declined to exercise the opt-out clause in his contract, meaning that he will remain in the fold through 2027, making $144 million (much of it deferred) for the five-year period.

In his second season with the Cardinals, the 31-year-old Arenado set career highs in WAR (7.3) and wRC+ (151) — numbers that ranked second and fourth in the NL, respectively — and hit .292/.358/.533 with 30 homers. He made his seventh All-Star team and is a finalist to win a 10th Gold Glove; if he does win the award, he’ll tie Mike Schmidt for the second-highest total behind only Brooks Robinson (16). As he also led the NL in bWAR (7.9), and therefore edged teammate Paul Goldschmidt in both versions (Goldy had 7.1 fWAR and 7.8 bWAR), he stands a reasonable chance of winning the NL MVP award. But whether or not he does, the Cardinals couldn’t have asked for anything more from their third baseman.

When Arenado signed his eight-year, $260 million extension with the Rockies in February 2019, his contract included no-trade protection as well as the ability to opt out after the 2021 season. His relationship with the organization began to sour quite quickly after that deal came together, however, and he was traded to St. Louis in February 2021 along with $51 million in guaranteed and conditional payments. As part of the trade, he agreed to defer about $50 million, payable over the 2022–41 timespan; accepted a guaranteed salary of $15 million for 2027; and received an additional opt-out after the 2022 season. By opting out either after last year or this one, he could have saved Colorado about $20.57 million from that $51 million figure, but because he’s staying, his old team is on the hook for that money, which includes $5 million annual payments from 2024 to ’26. He’s the gift that keeps on giving to the Rockies’ beleaguered front office. Via Cot’s Contracts, he’ll receive $35 million for 2023 and ’24, and subsequent salaries of $32 million, $27 million, and $15 million.

Earlier this month, Dan Szymborski evaluated Arenado’s upcoming opt-out decision and published a six-year ZiPS projection:

ZiPS Projection – Nolan Arenado

2023 .282 .343 .479 547 69 154 34 1 24 88 49 72 4 127 12 5.7
2024 .277 .338 .466 513 62 142 32 1 21 80 45 66 4 123 10 5.0
2025 .272 .330 .447 486 56 132 29 1 18 72 40 61 3 115 9 4.1
2026 .263 .317 .420 457 49 120 25 1 15 63 35 54 3 105 8 3.1
2027 .256 .309 .395 425 43 109 21 1 12 54 30 46 2 96 7 2.2
2028 .249 .298 .369 374 34 93 16 1 9 42 24 37 2 86 5 1.4

The ZiPS estimate for that contract is six years and $180 million, but the Cardinals are only covering the first five of those years — over which Arenado projects to produce 20.1 WAR — and at a lower AAV ($28.8 million) even before the deferred money is taken into account. While he might have done better than that on the open market, he’s headed into his age-32 season, older than all of the other premium infielders hitting free agency such as Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson, Trea Turner, and perhaps Xander Bogaerts, some of whom may wind up being fitted for the hot corner down the road.

Anyway, I don’t think Arenado can be faulted for playing it safe by forgoing the opt-out, particularly if it means staying in St. Louis. Where he once agreed to stick around a circus that changed directions approximately every 17 minutes, he’s now part of a model operation whose ongoing commitment to contending couldn’t be more clear. Given the sequence of events that sent him to St. Louis, it’s not hard to understand why he might value that.

Toward that end, the Cardinals have an infield that’s potentially locked into place for at least the next three seasons. Arenado is under control through 2027, Goldschmidt through ’24, and shortstop Tommy Edman through ’25; that trio alone accounted for 20.0 WAR in 2022. For second base options, they’ve also got 2022 rookies Brendan Donovan (under control though 2027) and Nolan Gorman (through 2028). Paul DeJong is also under contract for next season, but it’s unclear where he fits in the organization’s plans after a dismal .157/.245/.286 performance that included a midseason return to Triple-A Memphis that hardly fixed his problems at the plate.

Having that foundation in place allows the team to focus on other areas of need. Iván Herrera is the heir apparent to the just-retired Yadier Molina at catcher, but the 22-year-old backstop has just 22 plate appearances in the majors, and it’s tough to imagine the Cardinals heading into 2023 with him sharing a job with Andrew Knizner, who has produced a total of -1.7 WAR in parts of four seasons, including -0.3 and a 70 wRC+ in a carer-high 293 PA in ’22. The team could look to free agency, though not necessarily at the Willson Contreras end of the market; a lower-cost backstop such as Omar Narváez or Christian Vázquez seems more likely. With the August trade of Harrison Bader and the mercurial nature of Tyler O’Neill, the outfield could use fortification and the lineup some offensive insurance given that Juan Yepez will have his work cut out to replace the footprint of the now-retired Albert Pujols.

The starting pitching has Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, and Jordan Montgomery ready to go, but as Michael Baumann wrote in his analysis of the Wainwright signing, Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz have combined for just one healthy season since 2019. Those five along with various and sundry others — including Dakota Hudson and free agent José Quintana — combined for just 10.5 WAR, which ranked 16th in the majors; no starter topped Wainwright’s 2.7 WAR. Even if prospect Matthew Liberatore is ready, “he’s a pitchability fourth starter prospect,” as Eric Longenhagen summarized. This rotation cries out for a true No. 1 starter, and that’s going to require going outside the organization.

Maybe fitting Jacob deGrom at $45 million per year onto the payroll would be easier if the Cardinals didn’t retain Arenado and instead turned third base over to Donovan or Gorman. The Cardinals probably aren’t getting deGrom, though, and short of that, any free-agent pitcher sizing up this team as his next destination — Carlos Rodón, for example — is going to be happy to have Arenado behind him. Plus, he’s practically a necessity given the contact-oriented profiles of Wainwright, Mikolas, Montgomery, and Hudson.

As for Arenado: As Dan noted when he first published the projection above, that kind of production puts him into Hall of Fame territory. Even just sticking to the five years he’s under contract for, he’d climb from 19th in JAWS to ninth:

Third Base JAWS Leaders

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Arenado is currently ninth in bWAR among third basemen through their age-31 seasons, and both his projected career and peak WARs would also rank ninth. Given that Machado, whose 7.4 fWAR this year edged Arenado, is 15 months younger (this was his age-29 season), it’s quite possible the former could surpass the latter at some point, but at this point both appear to be Cooperstown bound. That Arenado could essentially seal the deal by the end of this contract would be quite impressive.

Arenado’s return isn’t a total surprise, but it has to be welcome news for the Cardinals and their fans, particularly as they’re still stung by their two-and-through ouster at the hands of the Phillies in the Wild Card Series. Their to-do list as they head into the offseason is significant, but Arenado’s return increases the likelihood that they’ll get another shot at October glory in some form or another in 2023.

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