Early Landing-Spot Odds for MLB Superstar Nolan Arenado in 2019-20 Free Agency
Few people may be watching the Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sweepstakes more closely than Nolan Arenado, who's just a season away from following their lead to a huge free-agent payday.
The Colorado Rockies third baseman has ridden elite offense (.931 OPS and 40 home runs per season) and defense (63 defensive runs saved at third base) to more wins above replacement than any other National League position player since 2015, according to Baseball Reference.
MLB Trade Rumors projects Arenado to earn $26.1 million via arbitration in 2019. Per Spotrac, his actual market value comes out to roughly $30 million per year and $240 million total. Barring a disastrous turn of events in 2019, both figures will be within reach for him next winter, when he'll be 28 years old.
With all this in mind, let's take a super-early look at Arenado's likely suitors on the 2019-2020 free-agent market, with odds based on our sense of how they stack up.
Chicago White Sox
Should it miss out on them, Chicago would arguably be better off signing Arenado next winter anyway.
Per Spotrac, the White Sox are slated to spend only $17.2 million on their 2020 payroll. Arbitration payouts will bump that up a bit, but to nowhere near the team's record payroll of $127.8 million from 2011. This is a means to match or beat any offer for Arenado, who'd slide into a third base spot that's presently devoid of long-term answers.
Moreover, the White Sox should stand a chance of being competitive in 2020, when Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodon and Reynaldo Lopez should be joined by slugging prospect Eloy Jimenez and flame-throwing right-hander Michael Kopech, who's recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Still, Arenado would have to determine whether to buy in to the White Sox's potential. Knowing how seriously he takes winning—see his July 2018 interview with Bob Nightengale of USA Today—he may prefer a more tangible shot at World Series glory.
Los Angeles Dodgers
It nonetheless isn't guaranteed that the Dodgers will oblige him with their interest next winter. They have Justin Turner, an All-Star third baseman in his own right, signed through 2020. Despite their huge local TV contract and MLB-best attendance, they've also been averse to long-term deals under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman.
All the same, the Dodgers may be a better bet to sign Arenado next winter than they have been for Harper this year. Though Arenado isn't as young as Harper, he's been a far superior player in recent seasons. Due to his background, Arenado could also be more willing to give the Dodgers a discount.
As for Turner, he could be moved to second base, where he's not short on experience. Alternatively, they could look to trade the 34-year-old before twilight has a chance to descend on him.
The Nationals will once again have Anthony Rendon, who's been nearly as valuable as Arenado over the last two years, at the hot corner this season. But unless the two sides can work out an extension, Rendon is due to test the free-agency waters afterward.
That would leave a gaping hole in Washington's lineup, but the bright side would be a (projected) salary of $17.6 million coming off the books. If the Nats were to also decline options for Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Eaton, they'd have even more cash to commit to either re-signing Rendon or his replacement.
Should they lean in the latter direction, Arenado could be their guy. He's got the numbers, and they're certainly not as nervous about making long-term commitments to superstars as the Dodgers are.
Yet, it's not hard to imagine the Nationals angling for Rendon anyway. He'll surely be cheaper. And while Arenado's 1.079 career OPS at Nationals Park is nice, it's not over a large enough sample size to distract the Nats from Rendon's even home/road splits.
It's possible that the Rockies will simply extend Arenado before he reaches free agency. They have a history of locking up their stars—see Todd Helton, Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Charlie Blackmon—and general manager Jeff Bridich has hinted that a $200 million deal for Arenado is doable.
Even if Arenado does reach free agency, the Rockies' chances of bringing him back must not be underestimated.
They're due for a new local TV contract after 2020, and they don't have any guaranteed salaries on their books beyond 2021. Presumably, they'll also be more willing than others to overlook how heavily Arenado's offensive track record has been influenced by Coors Field.
What may give Arenado pause is the team's contention chances. He's played in only five postseason games with the Rockies, who've historically had a tough time getting to October. The struggle was wearing on Arenado as recently as last summer, when he told Nightengale: "I don’t want to lose anymore. I just hate it. It’s tough on you."
Memo to the Rockies: Better go deep in the 2019 playoffs, just in case.
New York Yankees
Maybe it's because the Yankees simply aren't motivated to break the bank for Machado. Or, perhaps they're taking our advice and saving their money for a run at Arenado.
With CC Sabathia, Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, Dellin Betances, Aaron Hicks and (unless he's traded) Sonny Gray only signed through 2019, the Yankees stand to gain quite a bit of spending money after the coming season.
Why spend it on Arenado? Well, despite its reputation, Yankee Stadium is almost as friendly to right-handed sluggers as it is to left-handers. Beyond that, Arenado's defense would be far better than what the Yankees can expect from Miguel Andujar, who could be moved to first base or traded.
Of course, Arenado won't fit as well in New York if the Yankees do end up with Machado, which seems likely despite their coy approach. If they don't, they might prefer to save their money for extensions for Aaron Judge, Luis Severino and/or Gleyber Torres.
Boston Red Sox
The Boston Red Sox are in quite the financial bind at the moment. They basically can't spend anything without pushing their 2019 luxury tax payroll over $246 million, which is where the harshest penalties kick in.
On the bright side, the Red Sox will be able to breathe easier after 2019. With Rick Porcello, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Mitch Moreland, Steve Pearce, Eduardo Nunez and others due for free agency, their payroll is set to be over $70 million lighter.
Boston could take that as its cue to address a hot corner that finished dead-last in WAR in 2018. Between his slick defense and a potentially lucrative partnership with the Green Monster at Fenway Park, Arenado would be an ideal candidate for the job.
Or, the Red Sox could entrust third base to Rafael Devers, who's already accomplished much in the majors despite being only 22 years old. That would allow them to focus their financial might on re-signing Sale, Porcello and/or Bogaerts, or perhaps locking up Mookie Betts before he reaches free agency after 2020.
Setting aside their payroll situation, the Phillies are about as good a fit for Arenado as there could be.
They've given Maikel Franco his chances, but even a relatively solid turn by him in 2018 couldn't stop the team from finishing last in the NL in third base WAR. For a team that would like to reclaim NL East supremacy, that simply won't do.
The Phillies would be glad to have Arenado's glove at the hot corner, and certainly just as glad to have his bat at Citizens Bank Park. It's a bandbox for all hitters, and the best park for righty sluggers to call home. That should carry more weight than Arenado's .585 career OPS in Philly.
As for said payroll situation, it'll be in good shape next winter even if the Phillies bring aboard Harper or Machado soon. They have only $79.0 million in guaranteed money on their 2020 books. That's nothing for a team that peaked with a $177.7 million payroll in 2914 before a $2.5 billion TV deal even kicked in.
Arenado may only need to be convinced that Philadelphia is a good place to pursue a World Series ring. With 80 wins last season and potentially more in store for 2019, the Phillies look to be headed that way.
Because they're never not lurking in the weeds, let's end by considering a few mystery teams for next winter's biggest sweepstakes.
If the Dodgers decide not to lure Arenado back to Southern California, the Angels might. They could open third base up by moving Zack Cozart to second base, and they may be willing to do so if they're sensing that Mike Trout will be gone after 2020.
Arenado could also find a home in the NL East that's not with the Nationals or Phillies. The New York Mets will need a replacement for Todd Frazier, while the Atlanta Braves will need one for Josh Donaldson. Both may hesitate to pay the price for Arenado, but it should help that neither is bogged down by much guaranteed money past 2020.
There could also be suitors in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals have some money freeing up after 2019, and they'll need to invest in at least one corner infielder. Should the Chicago Cubs disappoint once again in 2019, they may move Kris Bryant off third and go after Arenado with the kind of fury that they should arguably be using on Harper right now.