Inevitable Nolan Arenado trade is only the start of Rockies’ problems

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — We are talking about a date now. Take July 28, 2020, or Jan. 6, 2021, or pick your own.

In the near future — barring the Rockies becoming a persistent contender beginning this season — Nolan Arenado will be traded. This is the cross street where foregone meets conclusion.

There is no joy in writing those sentences. Arenado is the kind of homegrown, hard-playing, talented asset that in a perfect world plays an entire career before one adoring fan base. That was the idea when he signed an eight-year, $260 million extension just over 12 months ago that assured he would not be a free agent following the 2019 season.

A lot happened in a year. Most of it bad. The Rockies followed their first ever consecutive playoff campaigns by going 71-91. This past offseason, reliever Jose Mujica, who has never played in the majors and didn’t play at all in 2019, was the only major-league free agent Colorado signed — and it was for the $563,500 minimum. Arenado felt lied to, that the promise upon signing was the team would always try to win.

His relationship with GM Jeff Bridich, in particular, became toxic. Colorado talked trade and Arenado — feeling disrespected — wanted out. Nothing was completed. So Arenado came to camp vowing to play his hardest — no one expects less from someone with his motor — and to “not be a distraction.” But he also believes that if Colorado is not a contender come July then, “There is definitely a chance that the topic that has been going on will arise again.

Nolan Arenado
Nolan ArenadoDenver Post via Getty Images

“I want to make sure I am a positive light here, not a negative light. This season will tell. We will see at the trade deadline where we are at. It all depends where we are at. If we are underwater, there are going to be a lot of discussions. The goal is not to get to those discussions. Our goal is to win. We can. A lot has to fall into place.”

He claims no regrets about signing because you can’t reject money that sets up your family forever. Yet, he acknowledges, “of course, I think about” what free agency could have meant this past offseason when his hometown Angels and Dodgers both would have been interested.

For Arenado, 29 next month, is feeling his baseball mortality, worrying about being locked in a place where he can win five straight Gold Gloves and finish top eight in the NL MVP voting each of those years, but never taste postseason success regularly. That is why his opt-out after 2021 is not just a clause. It is a looming threat to the Rockies, especially because it coincides with star shortstop Trevor Story’s free agency. Unless ownership is going to approve payrolls that swell near $200 million, it will be difficult for Colorado to keep both. So is the Rockies’ best path, before losing Arenado for nothing, to deal him (the Cardinals make the most sense for needing offense and having prospects to send back) and then try to build around those prospects plus sign Story to a long-term extension?

It is a tough question for a management that knows just how unpopular trading the face of the franchise would be. But here is a tougher question, one Arenado and everyone who wants to win in Colorado has forever dealt with: Can you win in a sustained way playing a mile high?

“It is a super-hard challenge,” manager Bud Black conceded.

The 27-year-old franchise has never won a division nor forged a unified theory on how to build a winner at altitude. Four starters or six. All bullpen. Fleet players across the field, especially in the spacious outfield. Or bashers to capitalize on flying baseballs.

Hitters play homestands helped by breaking balls that do not break as they would at sea level and then are quickly disadvantaged having to retrain themselves to the real thing on the road. Pitchers have to check barometric pressure to gauge how their breaking ball might behave. They must have a body (like hitters) that can recover as best as possible with less oxygen. They must be adaptable to pitch one way at home (often many ways depending on the conditions) and another on the road. And they must have talent to overcome all that.

“What are the chances of getting 13 pitchers plus the guys you bring from the minors (who have all of those qualities)?” Black said.

And what are the chances of getting it year after year when there is so much unique duress on mind and body? Kyle Freeland went from nearly winning the Cy Young in 2018 with a 2.85 ERA to a 2019 with a 6.73 and a return to the minors. He insists it was him, not the atmosphere, but he also noted, “It (pitching success) is sustainable, but it is not easy. It comes with a very big task at hand. You have the altitude and thin air, the way your body recovers from it, the way you go about your business. How your pitch is moving in that air.”

Arenado knows all of this as a lifelong Rockie. It is a big reason why a date is nearing when he is a lifelong Rockie no more.

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