Nolan Arenado is one of the best players in baseball, and he’s available. Should the Detroit Tigers go get him?
Nolan Arenado turns 30 next year, and he’s owed $199 million over the next six seasons. In an era of Covid-based belt tightening, when big contracts are anathema to front offices, it seems crazy to take a chance on a player like that. But maybe it’s time for the Detroit Tigers to get crazy.
There’s an undeniable air of optimism around Detroit Tigers fans these days. No one is expecting a championship in 2021, but a strong farm system, a universally praised 2020 draft, and a series of shockingly good coaching hires finally have Tigers fans feeling like the future is bright again.
Detroit’s major-league roster remains woefully thin, though, and while the team certainly hopes a few stars are coming from within the organization, at some point they’ll need to get outside help. And there are stars available this offseason. J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, and Trevor Bauer are free agents, and we’ve already touched on shortstop Francisco Lindor.
But Nolan Arenado is a different story. He’s younger than Bauer, Realmuto, and Springer, and unlike Lindor, he’s already locked into a long, expensive contract. The Colorado Rockies appear willing to trade him ($)
"What is the best way for the Rockies to adjust when Monfort still intends for the team to contend? To trade Arenado for major leaguers, not prospects, then sign Story long-term and make him the team’s new centerpiece. The Rockies listened to offers on Arenado last offseason, and nothing came of those discussions."
The Detroit Tigers aren’t ready to contend, and their owner Chris Ilitch is still a bit of a mystery. But teams can’t always wait to get good before they make a big splash, and if Chris is anything like his father Mike, who famously loved to acquire stars, then now might be the time to strike.
So let’s dig a bit deeper into Nolan Arenado and see if a trade makes sense.
How Risky is Nolan Arenado?
Taking on a $200 million contract is always going to be scary, but Nolan Arenado carries more than just monetary risk. The biggest concern is his opt-out clause, which gives him the option to become a free agent after the 2021 season, but we also have to consider his age, the fact he plays half his games at Coors Field, and his down performance in 2020. Let’s address these concerns one at a time.
Nolan Arenado’s Contract
The Detroit Tigers would almost certainly push for the Rockies to eat a portion of Nolan Arenado’s salary in any trade. Arenado is due $35 million for the next four seasons, then $32 million in 2025, and $27 million in 2026. It seems reasonable for Colorado to take on $4 million a year, which would leave Detroit with a slightly more palatable 6-year, $175 million contract.
Then we have to address the opt-out clause. Nolan Arenado would probably be foolish to step away from such a large deal, but the fact he has that option would certainly make the Tigers wary. Ken Rosenthal suggested ($) Arenado might be willing to move back his opt-out a year or two if it means going to a contender. The Detroit Tigers aren’t that, but this could be where the hiring of A.J. Hinch pays immediate dividends. If Arenado thinks the Tigers are on the rise, he might be willing to hop on board.
Nolan Arenado’s Age
Since making his MLB debut in 2013, Nolan Arenado ranks 12th in fWAR, 5th in bWAR, 4th in home runs, 22nd in batting average, and 1st in RBIs. He has made five All-Star teams, he owns four Silver Slugger Awards, and he’s received a Gold Glove Award in each of his eight seasons. He’s obviously a terrific player, but he’s about to turn 30. How well do players like him age?
Arenado is one of 15 third basemen since 1947 to produce more than 35 bWAR through his age-29 season. We’ll throw out the top five (Eddie Matthews, Ron Santo, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, and Scott Rolen) and instead focus on the ten players who produced between 35-45 WAR. In the table below you’ll see how they performed through their age-29 season, and what they did over their next six seasons.
Third baseman like Nolan Arenado have historically produced about 22.5 WAR in their age 30-35 seasons, and that’s including Eric Chavez and David Wright, who saw their careers ruined by injuries, and Evan Longoria, who hasn’t completed his age-35 season yet.
Obviously we can’t simply look at what other third baseman did and guarantee Nolan Arenado will be similar, but, if he produces at the level of the players above, he’ll be worth something like $180-225 million over the next six seasons. For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects him to produce about 8.5 WAR over the next two years.
Nolan Arenado Away From Colorado
Ahh, that thin Rocky Mountain air. This is certainly a big concern for Arenado, as his home/road splits are stark:
That’s pretty scary. Nolan Arenado looks like a Triple Crown winner at home, but hits like C.J. Cron on the road. Multiple analysts have looked into what happens to hitters once they leave Colorado. At a very basic level, hitters get an obvious boost when they play their home games at Coors Field, but adjusting to mile-high baseball also has deleterious affects when they play road games at sea level.
With time to adjust to a new ballpark, it’s likely Nolan Arenado would be neither the .320, 40-homer hitter he is in Colorado, nor the .260, 30-homer hitter he is on the road, but something in the middle.
If you’re curious what a .280 hitter with 35 home runs and Gold Glove defense might look like, it’s basically Manny Machado.
Nolan Arenado’s 2020 Season
Last year was strange in many ways, and Colorado Rockies fans must’ve felt very odd watching Nolan Arenado hit just .253 with 8 home runs. He still played stellar defense, but it was the worst offensive performance of his career. That’s a bit worrisome, but at least there’s a plausible explanation.
In the 5th game of the season Arenado made a terrific diving stop on defense. But apparently he injured his shoulder on the play, and the nagging injury stuck with him for the rest of the season, to the point the team shut him down with eight games left.
The Detroit Tigers would certainly want to make sure his shoulder is healthy. If it is, there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to hit like he has for the bulk of his career.
The Cost of Acquiring Nolan Arenado
The website Baseball Trade Values is a fun resource for putting together hypothetical deals. They currently give Nolan Arenado a -43.7 trade value, which essentially means the Rockies would have to pay a bunch of money to get a team to take Arenado off their hands. Colorado would almost certainly eat some of Arenado’s salary, but dumping him for nothing would be a public relations nightmare.
That said, they can’t expect a huge return. For the Detroit Tigers, that means no Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Spencer Torkelson, or Riley Greene. A prospect package of Isaac Paredes, Parker Meadows, and Jake Rogers seems like it could get the job done.
Detroit could probably put together a dozen different packages to land Nolan Arenado. They just have to be willing to do it. A trade this massive would certainly be risky, but it would go a long way toward making the Detroit Tigers relevant again.