Rockies face choice of keeping Trevor Story or Nolan Arenado
The Rockies are approaching a critical crossroads involving third baseman Nolan Arenado and shortstop Trevor Story, their two best position players.
The contract status of the two stars, the financial ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic on baseball and Arenado’s rocky relationship with general manager Jeff Bridich have converged to create an imperfect storm. How the front office deals with the situation this offseason will affect the franchise in 2021 and far beyond.
And it will tug at the heart of Rockies fans who’ve seen Story and Arenado blossom into arguably the premier left side of the infield in the majors. Because it seems unlikely, at this point, that the Rockies will be able to keep both stars.
Story, who’s owed $18.5 million in 2021, is scheduled to become a free agent after the season. He understands that his future in Colorado is a question mark.
“I’m aware of the situation that’s coming up,” Story said at the end of the Rockies’ second consecutive losing season. “I love being here. These guys drafted and developed me, and it’s fun playing here. So I try not to think too far ahead. I’m always the guy who’s going to cross that bridge when it gets here.”
Arenado, who’s owed a whopping $35 million next season, can opt out of his contract after 2021. While it once seemed certain that he would do so — or that the Rockies would trade him in anticipation of that happening — the pandemic has muddied the waters.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Arenado told ESPN last Tuesday after he won his eighth consecutive Gold Glove Award. “I think this year will be interesting. I’m hopeful that wherever (happens), I wanna play for a winner. If that’s in Colorado, that’s great. And, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about; I just wanna win.”
Choppy financial waters
The Rockies, like most teams in the majors, are navigating choppy financial waters. Former Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd said on MLB Network that he expects two-thirds of teams not to be spending big in free agency.
Count the Rockies among that group.
While the team doesn’t disclose its financial information, the 60-game season that played out with no fans attending games at Coors Field cost the Rockies well north of $100 million. According to sports industry analysts Team Marketing Report, the Rockies lost $174.7 million.
TMR annually produces what it calls the Fan Cost Index, a calculation of the average cost for a fan to attend a game for teams across sports. For the 2020 Major League Baseball season, TMR produced a study that projected how much game-day revenue each club missed out on due to the absence of fans. According to TMR’s calculations, there was more than $5 billion in lost revenue across baseball. The New York Yankees topped the list, with an estimated $437 million in game-day revenue lost compared to what they would have drawn with fans attending a traditional 81-game home schedule.
Rockies owner Dick Monfort admitted that the Rockies are staring at a difficult financial landscape.
“The financial losses incurred across baseball in 2020 are astounding, with losses at nearly $3 billion industry-wide and the average club losing nearly $100 million,” Monfort wrote in a letter to Rockies season ticket holders. “It will take time to rebound, and in some cases, these losses will never be recovered. As a result, there will be nothing normal about this offseason as the industry faces a new economic reality, and each club will have to adjust.”
The Rockies’ new television contract with AT&T SportsNet begins in 2021.
“I’ve always said (that) revenues pass right through to the payroll, and I think we’ve proven that over time,” Monfort said before last season. “It doesn’t start until 2021, so there’s no additional money next year (2020)….But it’s going to help the franchise (in the future). It’s going to help the franchise keep players.”
But all of that was before COVID-19 struck.
Enough room for Story?
Monfort has said multiple times that he would like to keep Story in Colorado for the long-term. Now, that might not be possible.
According to sportrac.com, the Rockies are already on track to spend more than $130 million in 2021, assuming they tender contracts to their 11 arbitration-eligible players. For example, right-hander Jon Gray, who is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2021 season, is projected to make $6 million in his third year of arbitration.
Story, who is a dazzling infielder, would be coveted as a free agent, though he won’t approach the eight-year, $260 million mega-deal that Arenado received prior to the 2019 season. But Story was the Rockies’ best player in 2020, leading the team in home runs (11), triples (four) and doubles (13). His 28 RBIs ranked second only to right fielder Charlie Blackmon’s 42. Story also led Colorado in OPS (.874) and runs scored (41).
So what are the Rockies’ options regarding their shortstop? They could trade him this offseason to a contender in return for prospects and a solid veteran. Or they could hold onto Story in the hopes that the Rockies turn their fortunes around and contend in 2021. If they don’t contend, Colorado could deal Story next summer, although that would mean paying half of his salary. Plus, there is always the risk he could get hurt.
Story’s future is tied to Arenado’s. If the Rockie were able to trade Arenado, that could free up money to give Story a long-term deal, although there’s no guarantee he’ll want to stay in Colorado.
Arenado’s situation, meanwhile, is messy.
He has six years and $199 million left on a contract that includes a full no-trade clause.
Arenado has made it clear that he doesn’t think that Bridich has done enough to construct a winning roster in Colorado, and late last winter Arenado said he felt “disrespected” by the GM. Bridich has yet to talk to the media since the end of the season — the only big league general manager not to do so — but sources say that the Bridich-Arenado feud has not been resolved.
Arenado might still want to be traded, but the pandemic has made that scenario problematic. Would a team be willing to deal for Arenado knowing he could opt out after one season? Would the Rockies be willing to pay part of Arenado’s salary in order to get out from under his contract? Would a team trade for all of Arenado’s contract if they could get him to agree to waive the opt out?
If the Rockies can’t swing a trade for their star third baseman, then the ball would be in Arenado’s court. Given baseball’s economic climate, would he really walk away from the $164 million left on the final five years of his contract?
That seems doubtful, but it’s a critical piece of the jumbled puzzle that faces the Rockies as they enter the offseason.