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Next year’s free-agent class just got a lot less interesting: Nolan Arenado is staying put. Arenado has agreed to an eight-year, $260 million extension with the Colorado Rockies that could keep the four-time All-Star third baseman in Colorado through the 2026 season. By the end of the contract, he’s a good bet to have surpassed Todd Helton, Larry Walker and Troy Tulowitzki as the greatest player in Rockies history.
Rockies fans should certainly be excited about the deal. The Rockies are coming off two straight wild-card appearances and lost the National League West title to the Dodgers last season in a one-game tiebreaker. They’re in obvious win-now mode and have locked up their franchise player through his prime seasons. They’ve built a young and — for now — inexpensive rotation around him that was one of the best in the game in 2018. The farm system will churn out infielder/outfielder Garrett Hampson this season and then top prospect Brendan Rodgers, No. 28 on Keith Law’s top 100, later this year or early next.
Signing Arenado helps keep that window for contention open. He hit .297/.374/.561 with a league-leading 38 home runs in 2018, finishing third in the MVP voting. He’s entering his age-28 season in 2019 and should remain one of the game’s top all-around players for the foreseeable future. Here’s a chart going back to his breakout 2015 season showing where Arenado ranks among all players in WAR over that span:
The desire to remain in Colorado no doubt was important, but Arenado also could see what happened in free agency this winter with Manny Machado and Bryce Harper and know there was no guarantee he’d get a better offer than the one from the Rockies, especially considering he’d have hit free agency at age 28, two years older than Machado and Harper. It lined up perfectly for both sides to hammer out a deal.
Another reason for Arenado to stay in Colorado: If he had eyes on returning to his home state of California, four of the five teams there already have third base occupied (Manny Machado, Justin Turner, Matt Chapman, Evan Longoria), while the Angels, a team with a potential opening, need to save all their money for Mike Trout. There would be no guarantee the California teams would be going after Arenado.
It’s worth noting that the Rockies have signed some long-term megadeals in the past and not had the best of luck. In 2001, Mike Hampton signed a $121 million deal as a free agent, but he was jettisoned out of town after going 21-28 with a 5.75 ERA over two seasons. Helton signed a $141.5 million extension in 2003 but produced just two more elite seasons as back issues cut into his health and production. With the outcome of those contracts still fresh, the Rockies ended up trading Matt Holliday rather than negotiate an extension. Then came Tulowitzki, who spent too much of his $155.75 million extension on the injured list, although the Rockies were at least able to trade him and get out of the final five-plus years of that contract (which runs through 2020).
There are reasons to believe the Rockies can build around Arenado and Charlie Blackmon (who signed his own $108 million extension last spring) better than they did around Helton or Tulo. They can feel pretty good about the current roster, with Kyle Freeland and German Marquez headlining that rotation. Shortstop Trevor Story emerged as a big star last season, leading the majors in extra-base hits and matching Arenado in WAR. They have a group of cheap young position players with upside in David Dahl, Ryan McMahon, Hampson and RodgersMaybe more importantly, a new TV deal should enable them to maintain higher payrolls moving forward. The Rockies’ current local TV deal, which runs through 2020, pays the team just $20 million per year. Only the Rays and Marlins were reportedly making less from their local TV deals and the Rays are reportedly close to a new deal for this year (although owner Stuart Sternberg recently told the Tampa Bay Times the deal is for “well under” the $82 million per year Sports Business Journal reported last February). Bottom line: Starting in 2021, the Rockies will see a growth in TV revenue.
Of course, the onus is on Arenado to remain healthy and productive. We all know many of the biggest contracts in MLB history have not worked out, especially on the back ends of those deals — think Alex Rodriguez’s final years with the Yankees, or Albert Pujols with the Angels, and now maybe Miguel Cabrera with the Tigers. We’ll see what happens with Robinson Cano and down the road with Giancarlo Stanton.
Two huge positives for Arenado: He has been extremely durable, averaging 158 games per season the past four years, and as a plus-plus defender at third base, he’s likely to maintain defensive value at the back end of the deal even if the bat starts to decline.
In some fashion, he reminds me of two other superb two-way third basemen of recent vintage, Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria:
Arenado, ages 24 to 27: 25.3 WAR
Beltre, ages 24 to 27: 21.8 WAR
Longoria, ages 24 to 27: 24.0 WAR
Beltre, of course, aged remarkably well and was actually better in his 30s than his 20s. Besides his defense, a key to the second half of his career was his bat-to-ball ability. In his 20s, he struck out 15.7 percent of the time; in his 30s, he cut that to 12.6 percent. Arenado doesn’t strike out excessively (15.5 percent career rate), but if he improves in that area, more balls in play will lead to more hits. Longoria, on the other hand, hasn’t been the same player since turning 28. In his first six seasons, he averaged 6.0 WAR per season. In five seasons since turning 28, he has averaged 3.2. Good, but no longer great.
All this is to say there’s no guarantee on what Arenado will do the next three or four seasons, let alone the next eight. One concern is that I don’t consider him a great hitter for average and batting average tends to decline as a player ages. He has a .291 career mark, but that’s not particularly impressive for a Coors Field player. He has hit .300 once, for a team that has had five different batting title winners since 2010 alone. That’s not a huge knock, but if Arenado hit .320 instead of .290, he’d be right up there with Mike Trout and Mookie Betts as opposed to merely one of the top half-dozen or so position players in the game.
In the end, the Rockies keep the face of their franchise, and that’s important. With their success the past couple of seasons, the Rockies have become a hot ticket, drawing 3 million last season for the first time since 2001. Keeping Arenado means they have a better chance of keeping this run of success going and giving the Dodgers a fight for the first division title in franchise history.