At the end of February, the Colorado Rockies signed third baseman Nolan Arenado to an eight-year, $260 million extension. At the time it was a bit surprising to see such a high-profile player sign an extension one season before hitting free agency, but it did finally put an end to seemingly eternal rumors about the Rockies desire to trade their best player. Plus, it just made sense for both sides.
The Rockies paid a near-market-value price to keep the face of their franchise; one of the few elite-tier corner men this game has to offer. Additionally, they were coming off their second winning season in a row — a season in which one-game separated them from being champions of the National League West. Above all, the Rockies were a team expected to do everything in their power to improve going forward.
For Arenado, on the other hand, the extension meant security and a hefty payday amidst one of the more contentious free agent periods that we’ve seen in recent memory. In the weeks leading up to Arenado’s extension, fellow infielder Manny Machado signed a mammoth 10-year, $300 million deal with the San Diego Padres — but the process of getting there wasn’t easy.
Why partake in that process when you have a near-market-value extension sitting on the table? If you remove his final season of arbitration (a super-two season, mind you) from the extension, Arenado ended up netting a seven-year, $234 million pact for his free agent seasons. That’s not far off from the seven-year, $245 million deal Anthony Rendon signed this offseason. Above all, Nolan Arenado expected to play for a team interested in doing everything in their power to improve going forward.
In fact, according to a piece written by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal from a week after the signing, the Rockies made this aspect very clear to Arenado:
“Arenado would require not only a full no-trade clause, but also a three-year opt-out and verbal assurances that the team, coming off back-to-back postseason appearances, would try to remain strong.
Monfort and Bridich told Arenado what he needed to hear.
“First of all, when you give someone a certain amount of dollars, you’re not just going to give them that to lose,” Arenado said. “There has to be some (aspect) of trying to win, or it would make zero sense.
“They explained to me we’re going to try to win, we’re going to do what we can, that’s why we want you there. We have a good core. There are some other guys one day in the future they might try to lock up also. It meant something to me.”
What the Rockies sold Arenado wasn’t a huge payday he couldn’t find elsewhere. Despite his reservations, both Arenado and his agent knew they could still land a deal this size even after a laggard free agency period. What the Rockies sold him was a promise. They sold him a better future. They sold him a path to a different legacy than Larry Walker, Matt Holliday, and/or Troy Tulowitzki. They sold him an ownership group and a C-suite bent on surrounding him with all the cast members needed to produce a World Series crown. They sold him the idea that both sides wanted to do everything in their power to improve going forward.
To their credit, some could say the Rockies have done that.
In April, during an interview with The Athletic’s Nick Groke, Rockies owner Dick Monfort talked about the team’s goal they set, “…player payroll that amounts to about 50-55 percent of club revenue” which lines up with the spending habits we’ve seen. They have been spending large amounts of money, relative to the rest of the league.
In 2019, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Rockies Opening Day 25-man payroll sat just under $146 million, or the 12th-highest 25-man Opening Day payroll in MLB. In fact, every individual season since 2014 has represented the highest payroll the Rockies have ever put forth. By all accounts, 2020 will be no different thanks to a host of players moving up the arbitration scale. Ownership would say that this represents their best effort, especially when you consider the goal they set to win through player development.
Both sides had clear reasons and motives that aligned, and this is where I’m supposed to tell you that everything worked out for all the parties involved. Except it didn’t.
On September 11th, Ken Rosenthal published an article discussing whether it would be preposterous for the Rockies to trade Arenado. At the conclusion of play on that day, Colorado rested in dead last for the NL West. A solid 31.5 games back with a record of 62-84. While things for the Rockies ended around that same area, the trade buzz surrounding Arenado only gained steam. On Thursday, Rosenthal published another piece, this time proclaiming that a trade of Arenado no longer seemed preposterous.
For Arenado, the respite from trade rumors lasted only seven months. But why? How can so much mutual interest deteriorate in half a year? The answer lies in a sincerity of intentions. It lies in what this deal was truly built on: a mutual understanding that, damn the price, both sides wanted to win.
To see this, just look at the moves the Rockies have made since Arenado’s extension was announced—an extension to Germán Márquez, and an extension to Scott Oberg. Although these extensions aim to nab multiple pitchers integral to their core, it should be noted that the most important short-term benefit these deals provide is cost-certainty. They lock in an unknown, like escalating arbitration salaries. This was, of course, below-market money the Rockies would’ve had to pay anyway, thanks in-part to MLB’s arbitration system. Long-term, they do lock-up a couple of free agent seasons for Márquez and Oberg, but those don’t occur until after Arenado’s opt-out in the offseason following the 2021 season.
So, what have the Rockies done since signing Arenado to that extension? Those moves are about the extent of it.
One during the 2019 season, and one following it. After a disastrous 2019 season, the team has made no serious effort to improve the roster from outside sources. In fact, they haven’t even been so much as linked to big-name free agents or trades this offseason. The only rumors or interest we see coming from the tight-lipped Rockies nowadays revolve not around acquiring top-tier talent, but trading it away.
Monfort’s comments to Groke in April help us see the reasoning behind this — a philosophy on roster creation that tilts the scale toward extensions and homegrown talent:
“I’m a homer,” Monfort said. “I love my kids, I love the guys in our system. And anytime I can get a Nolan Arenado or a Todd Helton, somebody like that, for the life of their career, that’s special to me and to our fans.”
The issue with this call-out about a desire to keep familiar faces around comes with the context of what has allowed the Rockies to keep familiar faces around. The Rockies are operating as if they’re a small market team. Extensions provide an avenue for teams to maintain cost-certainty through arbitration years and under-market salary costs for the times when extensions overlap with free agent years. Extensions that cover arbitration years give players money that a team was already going to have to spend, sometimes less than that. It’s not additional spending. Focusing on filling a roster with ‘homegrown talent’ might sound great and harmless in theory but remember that players between 0-3 years of major league service time make salaries well below their production levels.
This is why the Rockies aren’t living up to the faith of their agreement with Arenado. Both sides are not doing everything in their power to improve going forward. The Rockies are not doing everything they can to improve their roster as they are rarely players for top free agent talent.
Even when you consider their Opening Day 26-man payroll for 2020 is currently projected by Baseball Prospectus at just under $152 million, the Rockies have resources to spend more. They have lots of money coming off the books after the 2020 season. They have a new TV deal that kicks in after the 2020 season that represents around a $10-20 million increase in revenue. Data for 2018, which comes from Forbes, indicates that team valuations have grown 11 percent each year since 1992 (the year the Rockies were purchased). That is both well above the average yearly growth rate of the S&P 500 and on the low-end of the Rockies actual annual growth rate, as it pretends like the purchase had no debt associated with it. If that isn’t all, the Rockies made $65 million in profit from 2016-18.
This, of course, is a simplification of some figures that Forbes publishes, but the point remains the same. The Rockies are cashing in on valuation appreciation AND yearly profits. They don’t have to do that; it isn’t a requirement of owning an MLB team. They have more available money to spend, especially if we’re talking about a short-term spending boost. In fact, tying spending to annual revenues gives Monfort cover against this exact type of argument, because annual revenues are not the only way teams make money.
The issue at hand is that the Rockies are trying to field a competitive roster that is within reason of a budget they set themselves. They are trying to compose a roster that is within a philosophy they set themselves. They are claiming to be trapped within the confines of a box they set themselves.
Nobody is stopping them from spending more money or redefining how they comprise their roster. Only the Rockies are stopping themselves from doing everything in their power to create a different fate for Arenado. Rockies ownership only has themselves to blame for allowing their current-great to be haunted by the ghosts of former-greats. They’re trying to win, so long as winning doesn’t cost too much. That’s not what Arenado agreed to.
That’s why it is such an insult to Arenado, and fans in general. Of the Rockies 27 seasons, two-thirds have resulted in sub-.500 records. The Rockies finished the 2000s with a World Series appearance and a Wild-card berth. They finished the 2010s by going 1-1 in Wild-card games.
During both decades, the middle years saw tremendous loss and struggle. Never in their franchise history have they captured a division title. If the Rockies are running on contention cycles that culminate like this, what are we doing here? Who is to say that trading Arenado out of fear for his post-2021 opt-out would change the contention cycle at all, going forward? If this represents the height of ownership contributions to go ‘all-in’ or right a damaged ship, it’s clear that nothing will change in the future. Whether Arenado is traded or not. Shuffle the deck of cards all you want, but the only winner here is the pockets of ownership.
The way to break this cycle is with a true all-in push for talent. One that matches the fervor Arenado gives every day he steps onto that field. One that he thought was coming when he agreed to this extension. One that isn’t concerned with making sure the winning is cost-effective. One that he deserves.
If the Rockies end up trading Arenado this offseason, or at some point before his 2021 opt-out, it would be a disgrace. A true low point in the history of teams throwing their arms up while saying something about how they really did try. A stain on the organization. Most of all, though, it wouldn’t change anything in the long-term. That’s because the change required to create a truly competitive Rockies team has nothing to do with the players it has, but the ones it chooses not to pursue. And until that changes, nothing will.
Shawn Brody is a grad student and contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @ShawnBrody, where he likes to yell about the New York Mets.