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Trade Nolan Arenado? The Orioles, the Rockies and trading a superstar

We just watch one franchise hold onto their elite player a year too long and there’s another franchise heading for the same crossroads.

MLB: All Star Game-Workouts Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Manny Machado is now a Dodger. There was a long winding road leading up to Manny Machado being a Dodger but, we’ve finally arrived at the outcome many saw coming. If you’ve been following the opinions on how Baltimore did in their Manny Machado trade, you’ve heard everything from “it was modest return” to “for a rental, they did the best they could do.” Yes even the people who like the return Baltimore got for their superstar add the qualifier “for a rental...” to the end of their praise.

And the reason for that is very simple. Rentals don’t bring back the same value, or anywhere close really, as players with more than 1 year of control. Whatever you think of Baltimore’s return, what cannot be argued is that return is substantially less than it would’ve been had they made this move 12 months ago. The Orioles, a relatively small market team, held on to their franchise player too long and their stubbornness cost them significant value.

There is another team heading down these same tracks, and they’d be wise to take note of what just happened in Baltimore and adjust course accordingly. The Rockies have one of the best players in baseball in Nolan Arenado and they need to trade him. And they need to do it soon.

This will upset some Rockies fans, or maybe even all of them, but there’s a reasonable case to be made here. Let’s look at it.

If you don’t know, Arenado has 1 year of team control left after this year before becoming a free agent. So exactly where the Orioles were with Machado 12 months ago. What you should know is Arenado is one of the very best players in baseball. He leads the National League in WAR and, after putting up consecutive 5 WAR seasons the last 2 years, is on pace for closer to a 7 WAR season this year. He is elite in every sense.

What this means for Colorado, another relatively small market team, is keeping him past next season is going be crazy expensive. I mean crazy expensive. He’s at the Machado/Harper level in terms of expected contract, which means you could realistically see 30M to 35M per year in free agency. Maybe higher, we’ll know more after this upcoming off-season, but it will be expensive. And the bitter truth for Rockies’ fans is, those are depths that Colorado simply doesn’t swim in, or at least hasn’t yet. Doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t, but at this point I think the fair assumption should be he’s signing somewhere else after 2019.

So, if we assume you’re not signing him beyond next year, then the question becomes what can you reasonably expect to accomplish with him between now and then. Those accomplishments, of course, would be the principle justification for keeping him.

As we look at he current standings, we see Colorado is currently 2 games back in the NL West. Not bad at all. But a deeper look reveals a situation a bit more grim. Colorado’s playoff odds, according to Fangraphs, currently sit around 22%. If you don’t know, Fangraphs’ playoff odds take into account, not only current records, but talent level and projections for the rest of the season. So 22% is clearly not great, And most of that 22% is wild card hope. Their current odds of winning the division are 3%. The Dodgers are ahead of them in the division, and like we said at the top, they just added an MVP candidate to their team. So that doesn’t help. And if your best hope in the current season is a win-or-go-home wild card game, and you only have 22% chance of making that, then you have to weigh how legitimate your chances really are. By any objective measure, Colorado’s chances of doing anything significant this season are bleak at best.

And it doesn’t get much better next season. The Dodgers are going to have more talent, the Diamondbacks will probably have more talent, even the Padres, with an incredible farm system, is coming up fast. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that the Rockies will be closer to the bottom of the division next year than the top. And that doesn’t even count the Giants who have considerably more resources to throw at their roster than Colorado does.

But even if you live on the optimistic side of life, and say the Rockies will be the second best team in the West next year, is another 1 game wild card birth really enough to hold on to your franchise player? Because if you’re wrong, and things don’t go your way, he walks after next year for nothing more than a draft pick somewhere in the 30s. And that would be devastating. Small market teams simply can’t let that happen.

This all has to be weighed. Colorado has to honestly an objectively determine what their chances are of winning anything significant in the next 18 months. Because from where I’m sitting, it seems those chances are pretty remote. And if they are remote, then you’re committing organizational malpractice by not at least exploring the idea moving Arendao now. (And with how the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Padres look, maybe even a full rebuild, but that’s a separate column.)

But one thing we know with absolute certainty, is every day you wait between now and next year to trade Arenado, the value of the return plummets. The market for rentals has been set. And the return for them is pennies on the dollar. Even the elite ones. Manny Machado was just traded for 1 top 100 prospect and bunch of question marks. An MVP candidate. And had Baltimore been more decisive in the last 12 months, the current outlook of their farm system would look quite different. And Colorado needs to learn from those miscalculations.

Trading away a superstar is painful. Today probably sucks for Orioles fans. But it sucks more than it needed to because their front office didn’t see the cliff coming, didn’t sense the urgency, and got left holding an asset that was worth a fraction of what he was 12 months ago. Trading away a superstar is painful. Trading him away for pennies is worse. Colorado has a serious decision to make. And there’s a cliff in the distance.