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Nolan Arenado speaks for the Rockies, and the front office is listening

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What to make of the press-mediated back-and-forth between Nolan Arenado and the front office

It’s not often a team’s star player airs his frustrations with a reporter and says he’s “tired of losing” and that he “just gets pissed” about the state of things. But that’s what happened last week in an interview Nolan Arenado gave to The Athletic’s Nick Groke. (It was published on Thursday after the Rockies’ 9-8 win over the Giants.) Arenado expressed his dissatisfaction, as well as those of his teammates, with the 2018 season thus far. (I wrote about that interview here.) Since then, there has been robust speculation about what this interview means in terms of Arenado’s future with the Rockies.

The speculation has largely been on the part of Rockies fans who tend to see this as either “He’s gone” or “We need to spend the money to win, or Arenado is leaving.” (Just check the comments for my article or Purple Row’s Twitter feed or Facebook comments for examples.) A USA Today article published Monday morning will ratchet up that speculation with Arenado saying that after what he’s been through, playing in Los Angeles or San Francisco is starting to look pretty good.

My position at the time was that the focus of the interview was not about Arenado’s future plans, and my thinking hasn’t changed — if anything, I’ve grown more confident. I was intrigued in the Groke interview by his statement to Rockies management:

“They’re in an awkward position,” Arenado said of Colorado’s front office. “They’re probably wondering. They probably don’t know how to approach it right now. Only we know how to approach it and that’s winning ballgames. Hopefully we can put the pressure on them to go get guys. The more we win, the more they’re going to have to make a move.”

This is, I would argue, Arenado acting as the team’s spokesman in addressing management as the Rockies enter a crucial stretch that will determine their 2018 fate. Later articles published by Groke and MLB.com’s Thomas Harding have continued that discussion, all of this with Rockies fandom following along.

I do not see this as part of Arenado’s contract negotiations. First, he said before the season began that he only wanted to play baseball, not to be distracted by his contract. Second, he has said, both in the Groke interview and in other places, that he loves playing in Colorado. I take him at his word on both statements, without assuming that means he will necessarily stay in Colorado. This interview is about the team’s immediate future, not Arenado’s career with the Rockies.

Because of Arenado’s upcoming contract and his value as a baseball player, he is uniquely positioned to draw attention when he addresses these issues. That’s what happened on Thursday. In the interview, he acknowledges that the Rockies have underperformed, that they are frustrated with their play, and that they know they must do better. But he is also telling management that he understands they cannot invest additional money in this team right now because it is unclear if they will be contenders. Moreover, Arenado says that he expects the front office to spend the money should the team make a playoff run.

The interview was largely misunderstood as Arenado speaking for himself, not as a spokesman for the team. So Friday, in the pregame interview aired on AT&T SportsNet RM, when Arenado was asked about it, he made clear that he was expressing views that went beyond himself: “I think everyone feels the same way I feel. If you ask Ian, DJ, Charlie, I think these guys they would agree with what I said.”

On Saturday, Harding published his take on an interview with General Manager Jeff Bridich that’s worth reading. Here’s a key passage:

“I personally did not take it, at the time, that he was speaking to me or Dick Monfort [Rockies owner and CEO],” Bridich said. “That’s really hasn’t been part of our relationship, where conversations have been going on through the media.

”I think a lot of what he said is true. I think everybody is frustrated, and I’m not sure anybody in this industry that I have met enjoys losing. I think there was some truisms there, but pretty general to any competitive situation, especially in a season when there are [high] expectations ... building off things that went on last year.”

Bridich’s comment that he generally doesn’t talk to the team through the media rings a bit hollow here given that, one, Arenado gave the interview and in it specifically addressed the front office, and, two, Bridich has himself replied to the team in an interview. There’s more than one audience here. For whatever reason, this conversation has been pushed into a public space.

Harding also reiterates the money Bridich invested in the bullpen during the offseason and then adds this:

He believes getting through tough times like this, along with the improving health of the bullpen, can be key as the Rockies try to return to the postseason. He has to see all that develop before making a decision about the trade deadline.

”We are in a focus-on-playing-better-baseball-today mode,” Bridich said. “This team has not played as well as we had hoped. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us and nobody is going to come to our rescue.

”It’s on us to fix it. There is no magic pill or there’s no magic lifeline.”

Here’s a Saturday article in which Groke describes the same interview:

On Friday, in response to Arenado’s frustration, the general manager volleyed back at the clubhouse.

“I still very much believe this team can go on a run,” he said. “There have been other teams this year who’ve done that, in our division even. Arizona had a tough May and they rebounded and put their big-boy pants on and they righted the ship and they’re in first place now. This team can do the same. It will be on the individuals in the locker room to do that.”

Here’s my interpretation: The team has said, “We realize we need to play better, but if we do and become contenders, we expect you to provide us with the personnel to make a run.” To this, Bridich basically replied, “I paid a lot of money and gave you a bullpen. You have all that you’re getting right now, unless you start winning. Arizona did it, and you can, too. But until then, don’t complain.” After all, “put on their big-boy pants” means, essentially, stop whining.

Why is this happening in the media? I don’t know. But I do know that things have changed since the Arenado interview. The Rockies won two of three games against the Dodgers with Tyler Anderson and German Marquez having season-best outings. That said, the bullpen’s struggles and some fielding problems in the third game against the Dodgers suggests that the Rockies have not yet righted the ship, and the Rockies’ frustratingly inconsistent play continues. At the same time, management made a move by sending Jon Gray to Triple-A and calling up Raimel Tapia. Perhaps this is Bridich saying, “We’re not spending any new money, but we are willing to try some new things within the organization.”

And then on Sunday, Harding published this piece, “Rox GM won’t rule out acquiring veteran arm.” Here are the relevant parts: “Before the Rockies even address what Bridich calls an “artificial deadline” of July 31, he noted that the team has to play well enough to be playoff-relevant.”

And this, again from Bridich:

”We have a lot of the same players here this year as we did last year, mostly the same team, but it’s a different year. We’ve played differently as a group, we have different strengths and weaknesses to this point than we did last year, which means that our evaluations of the team -- as we look at the team, as it relates to an artificial deadline like the trade deadline -- it might be different than how we looked at things last year.

”I still think it’s a little early to make that full judgement, but it’s getting late quick. I don’t know how to answer that quite yet, specifically regarding the rotation. But I suspect that as an organization, we will have a better idea in the next 2-3 weeks.”

This strikes me as Bridich backtracking a bit from his Friday statement — “Work with what you’ve got unless you show you’ve earned more” — to laying out a possible change should the Rockies become contenders. But the moves with Gray and Tapia along with the unorthodox decision to carry three catchers suggests that the Rockies are preparing to make decisions based on whether the team emerges as a buyer or a seller as the trade deadline approaches, and either way, those changes will be notable.

That the players felt this was the best way to get their message to the front office seems like one reason why this conversation is happening in front of all of us. This is also the space in which the players have the most power, especially Arenado on the eve of his contract negotiation. But to read this as Arenado’s trying to get a better deal for himself is misguided. He is very much focused on this team and this season. What happens next is up to the players and the unpredictable and competitive playoff race. But all of this discussion suggests that the Rockies’ near future is uncertain as its 41-43 record.