February 1, 2021: Rockies trade Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals

Nolan Arenado was 10 games into his major league career when he arrived in St. Louis for the first time in May 2013. The young slugger already had three home runs to his name, and as he prepared to face Cardinals starting pitcher Shelby Miller, all-star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki sidled up alongside the rookie with some advice.

“Just watch the way these guys play the game and you’re going to learn something,” Arenado recalled Tulowitzki’s suggestion. “He was quite right about that. They did the little things to win ballgames. That’s something I’ve always admired about this organization.”[1]

That admiration was mutual. After more than a year of interest,[2] the Cardinals officially acquired Arenado from the Rockies on February 1, 2021, in a trade that sent left-handed pitcher Austin Gomber and four minor league prospects – third baseman Elehuris Montero, infielder Mateo Gil, and pitchers Tony Locey and Jake Sommers – to Colorado.

“With the addition of Nolan, we think we went from a good to great team,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said.[3]

Had it been a simple exchange of players, the trade probably could have been completed weeks earlier. However, Arenado had signed an eight-year, $240 million contract extension with the Rockies in 2019 that included a no-trade clause. It was the largest contract the Cardinals have ever inherited by $80 million.[4]

To offset the cost of Arenado’s contract, the Rockies agreed to pay $15 million of Arenado’s $35 million salary for 2021 and the remaining $20 million would be deferred for the Cardinals to pay later. Arenado’s option to void the contract following the 2021 season remained, and to compensate him for the deferred payments, an additional opt-out was added following the 2022 season, giving him two options to cut his contract short if he so chose.[5]

“I expect to be here a long time. I’m not worried about that,” Arenado said. “They’ve had 13 winning seasons. That’s enticing enough to me, and I know they care about winning and I believe they’ll do everything we can to win.”[6]

In addition to the additional option, an extra year was also added to his contract at a $15 million price tag. Before the deal could be completed, both the commissioner’s office and the players’ association had to sign off.[7]

“How does a deal like this happen?” Mozeliak asked. “I feel like you need a lot of patience. You need a level of persistence. There were multiple levels of complications, multiple complications of hurdles that were hit, but we continued. The feeling we have of making this happen is some level of relief, some level of exhaustion, but it’s worth it.”[8]

Arenado’s unique talent made it worthwhile. A former second-round draft pick out of El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California, Arenado had placed among the top eight in the National League MVP voting for five consecutive years. In each of those five seasons, Arenado hit at least 37 homers and drove in 110 runs.

If anything, Arenado’s defense was even better, earning him the Gold Glove at third base in each of his eight major league seasons. That tied him with former Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen for the third-most among all third baseman. He also had four Rawlings Platinum Glove awards, presented to the best defensive player in the league regardless of position. In the 10 years the award had been presented, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and Arenado each won the Platinum Glove four times.[9]

“Nolan is about as serious about baseball as anybody I’ve ever been around,” said former Rockies and Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday, who had developed a friendship with Arenado. “He’s hitting a lot. He takes a lot of ground balls. He’s not one of those guys who takes a month off. He jumps right back into it. He loves it.”[10]

Despite Arenado’s personal success on the field, he was never able to translate that dedication into team success with the Rockies. During his eight years in Colorado, the Rockies enjoyed just two winning seasons and never won the NL West title.[11] As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted in reporting the trade, Arenado had nearly as many extra-base hits in his career (524) as Cardinals infielder Tommy Edman had at-bats (530), yet Edman had appeared in 12 playoff games compared to Arenado’s five.[12]

“I’m excited to join this group because this team has more playoff experience than I’ve ever had,” Arenado said. “I’m just a piece to the puzzle here, and I’m excited to be a part of this group. I know they’re going to help me and guide me along, just like I can help them in this game also. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”[13]

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Benjamin Hochman, formerly of the Denver Post, described what it was like to watch Arenado emerge as one of the league’s best players early in his career:

Watching Arenado in his first few years was thrilling, but also was hard to watch because you knew how much he wanted to win. You knew how much he cared. It ate at him.

He’s one of those rare baseball players who is obsessed with baseball. Yeah, most guys love baseball. But Arenado is possessed by it. His DNA strands are stitched together by red lace.[14]

That obsession – particularly with winning – played a key role in Arenado’s frustrations with Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich, whom Arenado said “disrespected” him.[15]

“In 2019, we signed Nolan to what I could all a career contract – something that we were committed to,” Rockies owner Dick Monfort said. “Nine months later, Nolan asked us to look for a trade. Nolan’s desire to move on never wavered.”[16]

Monfort, whose own official Rockies Twitter account announced the trade by saying, “The deal is done” with a crying emoji, said he understood that the decision would not be popular with Colorado fans.

“Waiting until the end of the year and letting him opt out – that probably would have been the popular decision, or at least I could cleanse my hands of that,” Monfort said, “but … we wanted to find a way to get the greatest return possible. There were many teams that we talked to and there were many deals that made no sense.

“To be quite honest, there were 10 times over the last two weeks where we didn’t think the St. Louis deal made any sense. Jeff did an incredible job of pushing the talent. I know none of us know these guys real well, especially because there was no minor-league season last year, but our amateur scouts had seen some of these guys. There are talented guys.”[17]

Gomber, the only player the Rockies obtained with major league experience, was a former fourth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic University. The 6-foot-5 left-hander had split time between starting and relief in St. Louis, going 7-3 with a 3.72 ERA in two seasons. After making 11 starts for the Cardinals in 2018, he suffered an arm injury that limited him to just under 50 innings in 2019. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, he made four starts in 14 appearances.

Of the prospects, Montero had the highest upside. A 6-foot-3, 235-pound corner infielder, Montero had signed with the Cardinals as a 16-year-old international free agent in 2014. After two seasons in the Dominican Summer League and one in the Gulf Coat League, Montero played with the Cardinals’ Class A Peoria Chiefs and earned Midwest League all-star honors, batting .321/.381/.529 with 15 homers and 69 RBIs in 102 games before he was promoted to high-Class A.

In 2019, Montero was promoted to Double-A Springfield but injuries limited him to 59 games and he hit just .188. After the season, he played 15 games in the Arizona Fall League. No minor-league games were played in 2020 due to COVID-19.

Gil, the son of former major league shortstop Benji Gil, was a 2018 third-round draft choice out of Timber Creek High School in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2019, he hit .270/.324/.431 in 51 games for Rookie League Johnson City, totaling seven home runs and 30 RBIs.

Locey, a 6-foot-3, 239-pound right-hander drafted in the third round of the 2019 draft out of the University of Georgia, had appeared in 12 games between Rookie League and Class A ball in 2019. A reliever, he had posted a 5.29 ERA over 17 innings.

Sommers, another right-handed pitcher who was selected in the 10th round of the 2019 draft out of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, posted a 4.70 ERA in 51 2/3 innings that season with Rookie League Johnson City.

“We feel relatively comfortable that four or five of those players would have been the type of guy that we might have gotten with that one pick,” Monfort said in explaining why the Rockies chose to trade Arenado rather than allow him to opt out of his contract after the 2021 season and receive a compensation pick after he signed with another team.[18]

Despite Monfort’s reasoning, the Rockies drew criticism for their return.

“Now, I’ve only covered sports in our fair city since 1983, so it’s impossible for me to conclusively say that paying the St. Louis Cardinals $50 million to steal Arenado is the dumbest trade in Denver sports history. But it’s got to be a contender,” wrote Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla.[19]

Rockies fans felt similarly, and the hashtag #FireBridich began to trend on Twitter.

“I understand how they feel and, to be quite honest, I would feel the same way,” Monfort said. “And maybe I do even feel the same way. When we signed Nolan, it was an attempt to keep Nolan here the rest of his career.”[20]

In St. Louis, the mood was quite different. Due to COVID-19, the Cardinals had given season ticket holders the opportunity to opt out of the 2021 season without losing their seat location. Following the Arenado trade, several of the fans who had taken advantage of that option called the Cardinals to see if they could reverse their decision. Two days after the trade was completed, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that there already was a waiting list for Arenado jerseys.[21]

“What could go down as one of the most brilliant trades in the history of STL sports finally is official,” wrote St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson. “Nolan Arenado is officially a St. Louis Cardinal, and the St. Louis Cardinals are once again a legitimate heavyweight contender.”[22]

In his first season in St. Louis, Arenado hit .255/.312/.494 with 34 homers and 105 RBIs and won his ninth consecutive Gold Glove. With Arenado leading the way, the Cardinals won 90 games to claim the second National League wild card.

In Colorado, Gomber went 9-9 with a 4.53 ERA in 23 starts. His nine wins ranked second on the team as the Rockies finished the year 74-87.


Enjoy this post? Find similar stories listed by decade or by player.


[1] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals’ tradition, competitiveness made them appealing to Arenado,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[2] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals, Rockies awaiting approval to finalize trade,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 30, 2021.

[3] Benjamin Hochman, “Deal could lift Redbirds from ‘good to great,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[4] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals finalize trade to bring star third baseman Arenado to St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 2, 2021.

[5] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals finalize trade to bring star third baseman Arenado to St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 2, 2021.

[6] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals’ tradition, competitiveness made them appealing to Arenado,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[7] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals’ tradition, competitiveness made them appealing to Arenado,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[8] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals’ tradition, competitiveness made them appealing to Arenado,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[9] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals’ tradition, competitiveness made them appealing to Arenado,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[10] Derrick Goold, “A Ringing Endorsement,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 31, 2021.

[11] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals finalize trade to bring star third baseman Arenado to St. Louis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 2, 2021.

[12] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals’ tradition, competitiveness made them appealing to Arenado,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[13] Benjamin Hochman, “Deal could lift Redbirds from ‘good to great,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[14] Benjamin Hochman, “Arenado is a ‘rich man’s Scott Rolen,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 1, 2021.

[15] Rick Hummel, “Rockies’ boss understands fans’ anger,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[16] Rick Hummel, “Rockies’ boss understands fans’ anger,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[17] Rick Hummel, “Rockies’ boss understands fans’ anger,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[18] David Waldstein, “A Tale of Two Zooms: Arenado Trade Draws Mixed Emotions,” February 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/sports/baseball/nolan-arenado-cardinals.html.

[19] Mark Kiszla, “By giving away Nolan Arenado, the Rockies make dumbest trade in Colorado sports history,” Denver Post, January 30, 2021.

[20] Rick Hummel, “Rockies’ boss understands fans’ anger,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[21] Derrick Goold, “Cardinals’ tradition, competitiveness made them appealing to Arenado,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 2021.

[22] Ben Frederickson, “Deal is one of the best in STL sports history,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 2, 2021.

1 comment / Add your comment below

Leave a Reply