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Recent trends support Rockies playing the best player at 3B

Given the culture of pre-free agency contract extensions in baseball over the last few years, concerns over Nolan Arenado's future free agency should be put aside if the Rockies view him as their best 3B option for 2013.

Nolan Arenado has remained in Major League camp with a week left until Opening Day, when he may make his MLB debut as the Rockies third baseman.
Nolan Arenado has remained in Major League camp with a week left until Opening Day, when he may make his MLB debut as the Rockies third baseman.

With the announcement yesterday that Nolan Arenado was remaining in Major League camp and indications from media covering the team that his inclusion on the Opening Day roster is becoming more likely, there has been much consternation among Rockies fans about starting Arenado's service clock early.

The main issue is that if Arenado accumulates a full year of service time in 2013, he will become a free agent after the 2018 season, rather than the 2019 season.

Here's where I'm coming from on that: If Arenado's impending free agency is an issue, whether in 2018 or 2019, it will be because he didn't pan out, not because he did.

The trend throughout baseball in the last four or five years has been for teams, including the Rockies, to sign their young stars to lucrative extensions before they hit free agency, sometimes even before they hit arbitration.

We don't have to look very far for a case study in this, just about 70 feet to Arenado's left, to Troy Tulowitzki. In 2007, the Rockies were coming off a 76-win season with not many expectations. A very reasonable argument could have been made to let Tulo spend a month or two in the minors while Clint Barmes or Jamey Carroll kept his seat warm.

However, the Rockies decided to let Tulo take the job from day one, he went on to have a fine season in 2007 and was a key part of the NL Champions that year. It also ostensibly moved his free agency up a year to after the 2012 season rather than after 2013.

Of course, Tulo was not a free agent this winter, the Rockies signed him to a 10 year, $160 million contract extension after the 2010 season and gave Carlos Gonzalez a seven year, $80 million extension a few weeks later.

It isn't just the Rockies extending their young stars, either. A few months after Tulowitzki and Gonzalez signed their big money deals, the Brewers gave Ryan Braun a $105 million deal through 2020. Matt Kemp inked an eight year, $160 million extension with the Dodgers after 2011. This past offseason, both Evan Longoria and Felix Hernandez signed lucrative, long-term deals to stay with the Rays and Mariners, respectively.

The players that do change teams by signing big free agent deals are primarily the over-30 crowd. This offseason 28-year-old B.J. Upton was the only significant player under the age of 29 to change teams via free agency, and his old team, Tampa Bay, was busy signing another, more prominent player to a pre-free agency extension.

Another example is Mike Trout, after his ridiculous rookie season in 2012, the question people were asking was, "How big will his eventual contract extension be?" not, "Will the Angels give him a contract extension at some point?" These days it is assumed that if a team has a talented, young player, it will give him a contract extension that buys out some of his free agent years.

If Arenado becomes the young star third baseman he has the potential to be, it becomes very likely that the Rockies will sign him to a pre-free agency extension in 2015 or so regardless of when he makes his MLB debut in 2013. If he flops, he'll probably get the Ian Stewart treatment and be traded away before his free agency becomes an issue. The acceleration of his free agency clock likely becomes an issue only if Arenado winds up being a generally average player, and in that case there are plenty of average players to replace him with if we lose him after 2018.

Before a season starts, the primary criteria for putting together a roster and/or lineup should be which players give you the best chance to win games. That's not to say players' needs should not be considered at all; Arenado should be starting regardless of what level he plays at, but as Herm Edwards so famously said, you play to win the game.

This is especially true when a team is at 0-0 for the season, weird things happen in baseball all the time, so even if you aren't really expecting to win, give yourself the best chance to win. If the Rockies decide to intentionally and knowingly play an inferior player at third base to start the season, they are not doing that.

If the Rockies believe that Nolan Arenado is their best third baseman, he should be starting there in Milwaukee next Monday.