Blue Jays: A counter-intuitive trade idea involving the Rockies

Might Nolan Arenado be an attractive trade target for the Toronto Blue Jays?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.  The Blue Jays have a highly rated young player at third base, so that is definitely not a position of immediate need.  But they get an opportunity to trade for a superstar at that position – someone with not only all-star nods but multiple top-10 MVP vote seasons.  As much as the Jays love their young talent, an opportunity like that is just too good to pass up, so they pull the trigger.

Am I talking about Brett Lawrie and the acquisition of Josh Donaldson in November 2014?  Or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the acquisition (just maybe?) of Nolan Arenado in January 2020?

Hear me out.

The Rockies are heavily rumoured to be looking to trade Arenado, with one writer putting the odds of a trade at 50:50.  Colorado signed Nolan to an 8-year, $260 million contract in February 2019 and are now feeling the payroll pinch.  Trading Arenado’s contract would free up payroll room for a number of other pressing needs, as well as return valuable prospects or current MLB talent.

So why would the Jays be interested?

Arenado is not cheap

Wait, you say – did I not just put a disadvantage of trading for NA in the advantage column?  Well, that depends on your perspective.  As good as Nolan is, $32.5m average value is not chicken (or blue jay?) feed.  Based on recent contracts signed by Manny Machado and Anthony Rendon, the surplus-value of Nolan’s contract is likely only in the $30 million range.  This means that the prospect cost of acquiring Nolan might not be that extortionate, provided that the Jays are willing to assume the full remaining contract.

Arenado has an opt-out after the 2021 season

Again, this might sound like a disadvantage.  But it should decrease Nolan’s price, and reduce his risk of “gambling” on the Young Jays.

His defense is beyond elite

It feels very strange to be speaking of a Blue Jays player with defense so good that calling him “elite” is faint praise.  His Baseball-Reference dWAR/162 of 2.5 is the highest in the modern era, just ahead of Brooks Robinson (Yes, I know that defensive stats are squishy but to even make it to the same sentence as Robinson is holy-cow-Batman).

He is scary-consistent

Quick trivia hit – over the last 5 years, how many players have played more games than Nolan?  Answer – 3 (Hosmer, Machado, and Goldschmidt, in case you were wondering).  And how many players other than Arenado have put up 5 fWAR or better in every one of the last four years?  Answer – two (Mookie and you-know-who).  And Nolan will play 2020 at age 29, so he is not exactly in retirement mode.

Fair enough.  Arenado is a great player.  So why would the Jays not want to pursue him?

Arenado is not cheap

While some fans love spending Rogers’ money, the sad reality is that no team has unlimited financial resources.  Committing $30m+ to an Arenado will limit the Jays to some extent in future spending.  Some might argue that this money should be saved for a Springer or a Betts (!).  But Arenado could be a bird in the hand, and counting on winning the Betts sweepstakes (even after the Ryu signing) is a dangerous game.

Third base belongs to Vladdy

Vladdy has been working hard this offseason to enhance his defensive skills at third base.  But it is unlikely that he will ever be an elite defender at that position.  Bo Bichette was recently quoted as saying “I’ll play anywhere” if it helps the team.  Most people believe that Vladdy will have to move to first base (or, my personal wish dream, right field) at some point in his career.  For an Arenado-level talent, would he consider accelerating that move?

Arenado’s bat is a Coors-induced mirage

Nolan’s career wRC+ in Colorado is a solid 130.  But away from Coors, it is a more pedestrian 109.  There is a risk that he might not be able to maintain his career 120 wRC+ without the Coors bump.  But there are other factors that could offset this disadvantage – like not having to travel from high to low altitudes on a regular basis, and playing in a hitter-friendly AL East.  And even if Nolan’s bat did decline marginally, it is unlikely that his defense would do so as well.  That would still leave him with a high floor.

He has a full no-trade, and an opt-out after 2021

The no-trade is obviously an impediment.  If Nolan flat-out says “no” to Toronto, that ends the matter.  But the Ryu signing might indicate some level of thawing in players’ view of Toronto as an attractive destination, and the opt-out might work to the Jays’ advantage.  I see the FO saying something like this “Nolan, the Jays are ready to take off.  We have some of the best young talents in baseball, with others on the way.  In fact, mlb.com predicts us to win the World Series in 2024.  Give us a chance!  And if we disappoint you (like the Rockies did) then you can exercise your opt-out in the 2021-22 offseason with our blessing.”

The cost would be too high

As I mentioned above, Nolan’s surplus-value is only about $30 million.  So we are not talking Nate or Jordan in a trade package (and definitely not any of the “kids”).  But the Rockies would need to argue that they are getting back some pieces with upside, to avoid being lynched by their fans.

The Cardinals are rumoured to be offering a package of newly-acquired Matt Liberatore, Dakota Hudson, Carlos Martinez, and Tyler O’Neill.  This seems a bit rich, and it is not clear if they are also willing to assume 100% of the 7 years and $234 million remaining on Arenado’s contract (or whether other pieces might be involved)

But based on the $30m surplus value, something like Travis Shaw (Vladdy will be taking his position at 1B, and Shaw was a 3.5 fWAR player in 2017 and 2018.  Shaw could replace Nolan at 3B) + Fisher (who may still have some prospect glitter) + Zeuch (Colorado loves ground ball pitchers), with the Jays paying the full Arenado contract, might be enough to get a conversation started.

Next: Vladdy has to lift the ball better to improve

The bottom line

If this were fantasy baseball and the Jays could sign any player they wanted, Arenado would likely not be my first choice (Betts!).  But in the real world, a team has to be opportunistic.  And the chance to acquire a player of Arenado’s caliber, for minimal prospect cost, might be hard to pass up – particularly given the Jays’ current payroll flexibility.

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