Travel back with me, if you will, to February of 2019. Times were simpler then, to be sure. Masks were only worn by medical professionals and bank robbers, and the only “tick tock” anyone concerned themselves with was of the clock.
Things were looking up for the Rockies, as well. Fresh off their first playoff triumph since Rocktober 2007, the team signed their All-World third baseman to a record-setting contract extension. The team was willing to spend and some were discussing whether we were entering a golden age of Rockies baseball.
Suddenly I understand how Jack felt when Kate got in the sedan and drove away.
This weekend, Patrick Saunders’ most recent column in the Denver Post made the rounds on Twitter, indicating that some segments of the fanbase seem stuck on a February two years later. Reflecting on Nolan Arenado’s MVP-caliber season, Saunders concludes “Arenado was too good for the Rockies.” Questions of loyalty notwithstanding, Arenado’s will to win outmatched owner Dick Monfort’s, as demonstrated by the Rockies’ lack of spending after taking the Dodgers to a tiebreaker game for the NL West crown in 2018. After all, they let DJ LeMahieu walk, and look what he’s done with the Yankees ever since! If anything, Arenado has been proven right since he left, especially once you factor in the relative competitiveness of the NL West and NL Central, both then and now.
But what of the counterfactuals? Perhaps the Rockies aren’t World Series contenders with Arenado in purple pinstripes, but many dominoes have fallen since 28 left. In order to properly untangle such counterfactuals, we have to practice good historical thinking and understand February of 2019—and 2021—in its own time.
Who asked for this https://t.co/2OK0q2e5BG— Purple Dinosaur Podcast (@purpledinocast) September 3, 2022
Of course, there are plenty who agree with the fine folks at the Purple Dinosaur Podcast and might say it’s best we all just let it go. But, just in case it helps anyone with that process, I’ll venture to contribute to the noise a little bit and consider this departure with a little bit of context and hindsight. And, as Saunders alludes, one cannot understand the departure of Arenado without also understanding the departure of LeMahieu.
In 2018, LeMahieu had his worst offensive season in four years (87 wRC+) and became a free agent. The Rockies, meanwhile, had a slew of middle infield prospects, including then-no. 1 PuRP Brendan Rodgers, waiting in the wings. Rather than extend a costly extension that had the potential to block their prized prospect (who’d already moved off shortstop due to the presence of Trevor Story), they let LeMahieu walk. He ended up signing a contract with the Yankees to serve as a utility player (a deal almost nobody liked). Some better-informed coaching, a rash of injuries, and perhaps the presence of the juiced ball later, and LeMahieu turned himself into Ben Zobrist in his final form. Meanwhile, Rockies second basemen have struggled for consistency.
In hindsight, letting LeMahieu walk ranks as one of the worst front office decisions in team history, though it hardly seemed that way at the time. Though players reportedly balked at the non-signing, Arenado deemed the team competitive enough to sign the best contract of the offseason. $260 million over eight years proved to be a big outlay, and Monfort dropped hints that the team wouldn’t be spending much until new TV deals came up before the 2020 season but were otherwise excited to build around Arenado for years to come.
The team then fell flat on their faces. A 71-91 campaign caused by a fiendish combination of injuries and regression and the Rockies looked more like fool’s gold. Details remain murky but an after-season meeting between then-GM Jeff Bridich and Arenado did not go well. (Perhaps it was at this time when Arenado began trying to send game tape to Cardinals brass?) Trade rumors starting flaring, “disrespect” became a household word among Rockies fans, and the honeymoon phase officially ended.
Then the year 2020 became the longest decade in American history. The less said there, the better.
Again, with hindsight, Arenado’s fears of the Rockies collapsing in competitiveness seem correct, but that leaves out the potential impact of Arenado sticking it out in Denver (I disagree with Saunders’ assessment that Arenado would not be on a “best of all time” trajectory had he stayed). How would that particular flap of the butterfly’s wings impacted Jon Gray and Trevor Story, for example? It also omits Nolan’s agency in facilitating that collapse by forcing his way out less than a year after signing the most lucrative contract (by average annual value) in league history. Nolan’s frequent barbs and jabs at the Rockies organization since leaving, combined with revelations of just how much time he spent angling for a trade to Missouri, paint a different picture.
For Saunders’ article, “too good,” refers to Arenado’s talent but also his burning desire to win. Perhaps, when considered from all angles, “too good for the Rockies” can also be understood with a consideration of his attitude as well.