The Cardinals offense has struggled in recent years. Between 2019 and 2020, St. Louis’ offense ranked nineteenth in the league and third in the division by wRC+ at 94, while batting .242/.322/.404 overall. Starting 3B Matt Carpenter was not immune to this offensive drought, batting .216/.322/.372 with a 92 wRC+ over the same span. The roster had not seen any additions in the following offseason until February 1, 2021 when they acquired 3B Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies. Between 2019 and 2020, Arenado hit .300/.362/.548 with a wRC+ of 116. Each of these stats would have ranked top two in the Cardinals lineup, with his OBP and wRC+ behind only Paul Goldschmidt, despite Arenado’s 2020 season being significantly below his career averages, possibly due in part to a lingering shoulder injury. It is difficult to determine exactly how these numbers will translate away from Coors field, notorious for its altitude and corresponding effects on the game, but his park adjusted wRC+ remaining at a high level despite this is an indication that his bat will continue to be a threat elsewhere. On the defensive side, Arenado has remained one of the best players in the league. His 23 Outs Above Average between 2019 and 2020 led all infielders across the majors. His glove continues to receive praise, as he has won the National League Platinum Glove every season since 2017. Needless to say, his addition to the lineup in 2021 will likely improve the team in multiple aspects.
The immediate impact of the players who left the Cardinals in the trade likely would not have been felt by the major league team very much during the 2021 season. Tony Locey, Mateo Gil, and Jake Sommers all have yet to play above Class A-Advanced. Elehuris Montero has played in AA and may have made the major league roster at some point during the season, but missing 2020 due to the cancellation of the MiLB season and 2019 due to injury leaves his status somewhat unknown going into 2021. Austin Gomber would have been on the major league roster with a chance to compete with a few other pitchers for a starting spot, or would have been in the bullpen pitching long relief. Unsurprisingly, all of this along with Colorado paying a large portion of Arenado’s salary indicates that the Cardinals will feel a much bigger positive impact in 2021 due to this trade. Additionally, considering the duration of Arenado’s contract and the minor leaguers involved, this trade will likely have implications for several years beyond 2021.
Arenado can choose to become a free agent following the conclusion of both the 2021 and 2022 seasons. However, due to the uncertainty in the free agent market as well as his expression of his desire to remain in St. Louis during his introductory press conference, it is likely that he will not choose to opt out. Arenado will turn 30 years old during the 2021 season, so he should have several more productive years under contract. While it is difficult to determine how a player will age over an extended period of time, Arenado does have some factors working in his favor, particularly regarding his defensive abilities. The first is that he is no longer playing home games in Denver, meaning the physical toll that many Rockies players have experienced from frequent travel between elevations will not be an issue for him moving forward. Another point is his speed. Arenado’s sprint speed has been below the league average of 27 feet per second every year of his career. In 2020 his sprint speed dipped below 25 ft/s for the first time in his career. Despite this, his 7 outs above average were the second best in baseball among infielders, which earned him his fourth consecutive NL Platinum Glove Award. Because of his ability to be an elite defensive player without being near the top of the league in sprint speed, he has a better chance of maintaining his defensive abilities for longer since it does not seem to be directly tied to his speed as much as other players.
Nolan Arenado is one of the biggest acquisitions by the Cardinals in recent history. The presence of both his bat and glove will be felt the moment he steps on the field. Should he choose not to exercise his right to opt out, he has the tools to remain a big part of the Cardinals team for many years to come.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant.
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