The National League Central sat dormant for the duration of the offseason, at least in terms of additions. Even the best of the lot of teams had shed salary and sat idle on their checkbooks, watching the likes of the San Diego Padres, New York Mets, and Washington Nationals actively try to make their rosters better through the simple process of paying good players to do so.
That trend ended abruptly on Friday, however. The St. Louis Cardinals made the single biggest splash within the division, their acquisition of Colorado Rockies star 3B Nolan Arenado the biggest shot across the bow the Midwest Five of the senior circuit has seen all winter. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal was first on the news.
BREAKING: Cardinals have agreed to acquire Nolan Arenado from Rockies, sources tell @TheAthletic. Deal pending approval from both MLB and players’ union; Rockies sending Cardinals significant cash, believed to be in $50M range, and Arenado will be deferring money.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) January 30, 2021
The details are still waiting to be confirmed due to the massive amount of moving parts involved, but I’ll outline the gist. First, the Rockies are paying St. Louis $50 million to take the best player they have drafted and developed in their franchise history, and are doing so now to get under the luxury tax, but simply to do their best impersonation of the miserable Pittsburgh Pirates austerity model. Second, St. Louis is sending four prospects back to Denver, none of which come from within the Top 10 in their own system, and none of whom sniff at Top 100 overall prospect list. Third, Arenado keeps his opt-out for the end of the 2021 season, but given the lack of spending league-wide that remains a longshot to be exercised - and even if he surged so hard in 2021 to warrant it, the Cardinals will effectively earn $15 million for employing him for one year of MVP-level production while giving up nothing of serious value from their farm.
The lesson here is about money, and the fact that there is no penalty in place in modern Major League Baseball to ding clubs for not spending it. And if you’re one of the precious few clubs who is willing to spend it to win actual baseball games, the baseball world is your oyster at the moment.
For the Cincinnati Reds, it appears they have a shellfish allergy. The same can be said for the Rockies, who appear to be one of the very few franchises in the game more rudderless than Cincinnati.
The Cardinals still have holes, of course. They have welcomed back Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina this week, too, but still don’t look like a fortress akin to San Diego or the Dodgers. Still, given the lackluster attempts at progress in Cincinnati, the north side of Chicago, Milwaukee, and whatever the hell Pittsburgh is doing, any step forward seems to count five-fold this offseason. And in Arenado, they land a still in-prime player who, after the cash-infusion coming with him, will be earning roughly the same as what George Springer signed for as a free agent earlier this winter north of the border.
For St. Louis, all it cost them was money, really, money other teams simply were not willing to spend.