How badly will Nolan Arenado Kill the Cubs this year?
When Nolan Arenado was traded to the Cardinals, a chorus of doom rose from a certain part of the Cubs fanbase.
Arenado has a career .890 OPS. Just for comparative's sake, Ruth had an OPS of 1.164, but Kris Bryant is at .889. So the Cardinals did add a huge piece to their lineup. For the last 5 full seasons (excluding a rough 2020), Arenado averaged 97 runs, 35 home runs and 114 RBI, while winning the gold glove. That's a solid piece in the middle of any lineup. At first glace, it appears that the Cardinals have added a monster player. But just as MLB front offices have gotten wise to not overpay free agents for past performances, I am going to take a closer look at what we can expect Arenado to do for the Cardinals.
Will Arenado be a Cub killer for years to come? Or are the Cardinals going to be paying $35 million a year for an albatross? Time for some number crunching.
Nolan Arenado's hitting is truly two different stories. In his career, Arenado has the 10th best OPS among active players, at .890. At home, he has a .985 OPS, which would be second to Mike Trout. On the road, it's just .793, which would tie him with Yasmani Grandal.
I bring up these splits, because of the hitter's paradise known as Coors Field. While the humidor tempered off some of the video game statistics, it is still a hitter's paradise. Arenado has clearly benefitted from playing in Colorado. For a home OPS+ split, he had a number of 120, or essentially 20 over average. On the road, that number is 79, or -41. I took the liberty of checking other Rockies' sluggers, and they have a similar story. Trevor story is 125/75, and Charlie Blackmon is 128/73. Coors Field is still a tremendous hitters park.
Since 2014, Coors Field has seen 1.386 runs scored over a league average of 1 run, tops in all of baseball. Busch Stadium was ranked 19th, with .95. That's a massive difference of .436 runs. 32% fewer runs are scored at Busch than Coors.
If we apply this 32% reduction in stats to Arenado's home numbers, it reads a story like this:
Runs: 386 to 232, down 124 for his career, or -17 per season.
Home Runs: 136 to 92, or -6.3 HRs per season.
RBIs: 461 to 313. He loses 148 RBIs, which over 7 seasons, becomes -21 per season.
Arenado goes from a 97 R/35 HR/114 RBI producer to a 80 R/29 HR/ 93 RBI hitter. But I'm no statistical expert. I expect regression, but that seems pretty drastic.
Does that line up with what some of the experts are projecting?
While the above numbers might seem like a drastic drop, the official projections are on my side. Arenado is going into his age 30 year. Here's what he's projected to do (per fangraphs).
Arenado might be a career .293/.349/.541/.890 slash line before, but he's projected to slide to a .264/.337/.480/.817 line this year. That drop in OPS puts him from being a top 10 MLB hitter to top 30. Hardly Babe Ruth.
Arenado has played between 17 and 24 games in NL Central ballparks. He'll greatly add to that number this year. Here are his stats in those ballparks for his career:
Outside of his Ruthian figures in Milwaukee, Arenado has been below his career norms at every ballpark he'll get regular playing time at this year. Particularly notice his .278/.337/.511/.848 numbers at Busch. That's in line with the .264/.337/.480/.817 overall projection for 2021. Arenado's still going to be a good hitter in 2021. But lets look at the big picture now.
Nolan Arenado signed an 8 year $260 million dollar deal in February of 2019, which gave him an average annual value of $32.5m. When the Rockies shipped Arenado to St. Louis, they also threw in up to $51 million to help pay his massive salary. In the end, the Cardinals will pay Arenado $163 million over the next 7 years, or $23.28 million AAV to cover Arenado from age 30-36.
His salary currently places the small market cardinals with a current 40 man payroll of $158m. Partnered with Goldschmidt, The Cardinals will be paying almost $50m per year to play out their mid 30s. Good for the small market Cardinals that they can somehow afford these big salaries.
Using the industry standard of free agent hitters typically being worth 1 WAR per $8m, The Cardinals figure to get excess value in 2021 for a projected 4 WAR from Arenado. If Arenado regresses just 1 WAR per year in his 30s, all of a sudden that excess value disappears. That regression isn't out of the realm of possibility by any means. Arenado will likely not keep being a gold glover like before. We've already talked about his hitting regressing away from Colorado.
While the Rockies were on the hook for $32.5 each year for Arenado before, they were in a massive danger zone. When Arenado regressed to a .737 OPS player in 2020 while publicly battling the front office, the Rockies had their hands tied. Do you keep a player who will likely regress at a massive salary, and by the way, he hates you. And by the way, he had a brutal lost season. That's enough to give any team the heebies jeebies. The Rockies were at risk of having their hands tied for a long long time. I'm not going to call the Arenado trade good for the Rockies, but in hindsight, I think it will prove to be the correct move for the franchise, and one they had to make.
The Cardinals are paying $20 million for a likely 4 win player in 2021. That's a good move. But it's also a short term one. They will owe Arenado $35m in 2022 (age 31), $27.8m in 2023/2024 (ages 32/33), $24.8 in 2025 (age 34), $19.8 in 2026 (age 35), and finally $7.8m in 2027 at age 36. If Arenado regresses to a 3 win player in his early 30s, then a 2 win player for his mid 30s, it breaks down like this:
St. Louis has fantastic value in this trade for 2021. But after that, they are in a bit of a danger zone. If Arenado beats his projections, they will be fine. But I have no reason to expect that.
There's a reason the Rockies unloaded him. Now he's St Louis's problem to figure out. Colorado paid a sharp price to unload, and that shouldn't go unnoticed by fans. Why would they pay so much to get one of their franchise players off the team? Here's the same value chart if the Rockies kept him and paid his full salary:
Between between Arenado's combativeness and potential regression into his 30s, The Rockies weren't going to sit around and wait to see how things developed. They had long term vision for a rebuilding franchise, and elected to cut. The Cardinals got a solid hitter at a reasonable price for now. But if Arenado regresses into his 30s, we might be looking at this trade as being a lot more a few years from now.
For now. I'm a bit worried about what Arenado will do to the Cubs in 2021. But as him and Goldschmidt anchor St. Louis's payroll for the next 5 years... Well, let's just say St. Louis better win in 2021 to make it all worth it.