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The Nolan Arenado trade is bad for baseball

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And no, not just because he’s going to the Cardinals

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Colorado Rockies
Nolan Arenado makes a slick play last September
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball has a competitive balance problem. While the ink is still drying on the deal that saw the Rockies pay the Cardinals to take arguably the best third baseman in the game for peanuts, I just cannot shake the feeling that this trade is the starkest proof point yet that baseball is in trouble.

The deal that sent Nolan Arenado to St. Louis is a dead canary in a coal mine, and it’s not the only one. Just read this excerpt from Marc Carig in the Athletic yesterday:

Baseball history tells us that this game has always been about the haves and have-nots. For every one team trying to win, there have been three who are just along for the ride. This order has been maintained by thrift or incompetence — oftentimes, a combination of both. But that chasm feels wider than ever.

We have the Indians trading away Francisco Lindor, one of the best players in the history of the franchise, because he got expensive. We have the Rays winning an American League pennant, and then trading away their best pitcher, Blake Snell, even when he was relatively inexpensive. We have the Cubs deciding they’ve had enough of being interesting, and the A’s shutting down shop rather than improving a roster that has made the playoffs three straight seasons. Some of this is a matter of financial uncertainty due to COVID-19. But some of this behavior predates the pandemic.

And now we have the Rockies, who tried for a bit, extended Arenado to a megadeal, and then behaved as if this was good enough. It wasn’t. Arenado wasn’t pleased and now he’s gone, leaving the Rockies to be the Washington Generals to the Dodgers and the Padres’ Harlem Globetrotters, content to be feeders for organizations trying to win. It wasn’t even the first time the Rockies sent a star to the Cardinals. Remember Larry Walker? Indeed, for St. Louis, the road to the World Series begins at the corner of 20th and Blake in Denver.

The “Epidemic of Not Trying” Carig refers to is so pervasive that there doesn’t even appear to be a floor on the returns teams are accepting for some of the best players in the game. The Cubs were satisfied with a year of Zach Davies and four lottery tickets from the Padres in return for three years of Yu Darvish and Victor Caratini. In fact, the Padres managed to add Darvish and Rays ace Blake Snell without trading their top two prospects. The Pirates were fine with trading their 2010 first round draft pick and completely affordable ace, Jameson Taillon, for four Yankees prospects who don’t crack the top five in the organization. Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco became Mets for a return of Ahmed Rosario and Andres Gimenez plus two prospects who didn’t crack the Mets’ top 10.

The trend was clear before the Rockies decided to pay the Cardinals to take their franchise player of their hands, but with one year left in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement the lights are flashing red for MLB. Arenado was worth every penny of the eight-year, $260 million contract extension he signed with the Rockies. That it only took a couple of years for the Rockies to pay the Cardinals $51 million to take their best player while only receiving Austin Gomber and four prospects — the highest of whom ranked seventh in the Cardinals system, is stunningly inept.

The number of teams trying in a given season is falling. Their willingness to pay players with the new CBA looming is also falling. The result is baseball’s best players being shipped to one of the six teams trying to win in the short-term for ludicrously low returns that don’t make the teams selling all that much better in the mid- to long-term. The prospects in all of these deals are young, high upside guys who may or may not hit. It isn’t so much that they are necessarily bad returns, it’s just that they are a lot riskier than the returns teams have historically expected for trading some of the best players in the game.

Incredibly, there is no indication this will get better. If the league’s economics were sound elite players would sign the contracts they are due and teams would build around those franchise pieces to compete. As things currently stand, 20 percent of the league is racking up talent at fire sale prices while holding onto their best farm pieces to compete in the future.

This is a disaster for most teams in the league, but perhaps no team stands to lose as much at this moment as the Chicago Cubs. Their core players’ walk years are looming precisely as their value in prospects is lowest, and there has been very little talk of extending players like Willson Contreras and Javier Báez. While it’s still theoretically possible that pressure at the trade deadline will increase the prospect packages other teams are willing to pay for a player like Kris Bryant there is no guarantee that will happen, particularly if MLB expands the playoffs again in 2021.

The Cubs already let two first-round draft picks walk for nothing in Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. How much more talent will the Cubs lose for pennies on the dollar because the fundamental economics of baseball are broken?