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The clock is ticking for Nolan Arenado in Colorado, something the Phillies should monitor

Nolan Arenado can become a free-agent after the 2019 season. (Arturo Pardavila III/ Wikiemedia Commons)

At his season-ending press conference, Philadelphia Phillies president Andy MacPhail cautioned reporters that this upcoming offseason’s free-agent class – which will include Manny Machado and Bryce Harper – isn’t the final one in baseball history. In fact, he pointed out that the 2019 free-agent class has a chance to be pretty impressive in its own right.

One potential free-agent after the 2019 season is Colorado Rockies four-time All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado. The 27-year-old slashed .297/.374/.561 with 38 home runs, 110 RBIs and a 5.7 fWAR in 2018. He’s going to win his sixth consecutive Gold Glove Award at third base. Phillies icon Mike Schmidt – considered to be the greatest third baseman of all-time – told Tyler Kepner of The New York Times this past March that Arenado is his “heir apparent.” When the Phillies visited Colorado in late September, Arenado acknowledged the appreciation he has for the love he’s been shown by Schmidt and his former teammate Larry Bowa.

For the better part of the last five years, it’s been one of the worst-kept secrets in baseball that Phillies managing partner John Middleton would like to make a splash this offseason. That could come in the form of Machado or Harper. Some even think both could end up with the Phillies, though MacPhail, without addressing the two by name, seemed to pour cold water on that idea when he met with the media last week. But Machado’s preference to join the New York Yankees could curtail the Phillies from signing him. Harper could remain with the Washington Nationals or join the Chicago Cubs. With their financial wherewithal, it feels realistic that the Phillies will land one of Machado or Harper this offseason, but there is a scenario where neither come to Philadelphia.

And the clock is ticking for Arenado in Colorado, which could make him an interesting pivot this offseason for the Phillies.

For his part, Arenado, who will turn 28 next April, says that he plans to be a Rockie in 2019. But he did admit that the business side of the sport can change plans rather abruptly.

“Obviously arbitration is going to come around, and that topic will come up, but I expect to be in spring training with the Rockies next year,” Arenado told Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post. “I love it here. This is a business, though, and things can get a little iffy because of the business side of it. But that being said, I expect to be in Spring Training next year.”

The Rockies don’t look like a team that’s far away from being a potential World Series contender. Though the team could very well lose second baseman DJ LeMahieu in free-agency this offseason, they were able to sign three-time All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon to a lucrative six-year extension in April. Trevor Story is one of the league’s best shortstops. Outfielder David Dahl had an impressive 249 at-bat stint in 2018.

Of course, the Rockies almost always have a formidable lineup. But German Marquez and Kyle Freeland give the Rockies two elite, young arms that should be at the top of their rotation for some time to come.

And yet, the Rockies were swept by the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLDS. A frustrated Arenado was open in July about the poor taste that’s been left in his mouth by playing in the same division as the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, who have had remarkable team success since his career began in 2013.

“I don’t want to lose anymore. I just hate it,’’ Arenado told Bob Nightengale of USA Today. “It’s tough on you. I’ve only been to the playoffs once, and it was only one game and then it’s gone. We got kicked out quick.”

Well, Arenado has now been to the playoffs twice in two years. In 2017, the Rockies were eliminated by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Wild Card Game. This year, they defeated the Chicago Cubs in a thrilling 13-inning Wild Card Game. This, however, came a day after the Dodgers defeated them in a one-game playoff to determine the winner of the National League West. And the Wild Card victory preceded the Rockies “getting kicked out quick” in the NLDS.

If Arenado is even so much as non-committal about his future this offseason, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich may be forced to consider moving his franchise icon. As Saunders pointed out in his piece, the Rockies did this a decade ago with Matt Holliday, trading him to the Oakland Athletics prior to the final season of his arbitration eligibility, out of the fear that they wouldn’t be able to retain him in free-agency.

There are a couple things worth considering when weighing a pursuit of Arenado.

A trade of the Arenado to the Phillies would presumably be contingent on him signing a long-term extension. It feels unlikely the Phillies would trade for only one guaranteed year of Arenado. The Phillies may be able to put an offer on Arenado’s table that he couldn’t resist. But if his No. 1 goal is team success, the Phillies appear to be further away from winning a title than the Rockies. Sure, the Phillies have more financial might than the Rockies. But the Phillies were outscored 39-7 in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Rockies during the final full week of the season. That probably wasn’t lost on Arenado. So while the former second-round pick couldn’t block a trade to the Phillies, he could stifle the potential interest of Matt Klentak by suggesting that he would want to enjoy some team success with the Phillies before agreeing to a long-term extension.

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Arenado’s home/road splits could also impede the Phillies interest in Arenado. There are examples of players, such as Larry Walker, that are superstars in Colorado but also find tremendous offensive success playing away from Coors Field. The question isn’t whether being an offensive star in Denver is legitimate – it’s an MLB stadium. If Arenado plays his entire career in Colorado and continues on this trajectory, he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But in 1,677 career at-bats at Coors Field, Arenado has slashed .320/.374/.609 with 108 home runs, 376 RBIs and a .984 OPS. Away from Coors Field, Arenado has still been quite good, though not Hall of Fame caliber good. In 1,671 career at-bats away from Colorado, Arenado has slashed .263/.318/.419 with 78 home runs, 240 RBIs and a .787 OPS.

Regardless of where he plays his home games, Arenado’s glove is going to play. He’s one of the greatest fielding third baseman that the game has ever seen and that has nothing to do with the altitude in Denver. But anyone giving Arenado a deal in excess of $175 million would be doing so hoping to get the superstar version of Arenado that he’s been at Coors Field. There would still be a market for Arenado that’s played away from Coors Field, though perhaps not one where multiple teams would be willing to approach $200 million.

Arenado has a .267 career batting average against the Phillies. With that said, in the small sample size of 66 at-bats at Citizens Bank Park – once referred to as “Coors East” – Arenado has slashed .197/.236/.348 with a .585 OPS. He does have three home runs and 10 RBIs at Citizens Bank Park – and 72 plate appearances isn’t a ton – but it’s hard to shake his splits at Citizens Bank Park, especially since the Phillies haven’t exactly been a World Series contender since Arenado entered the league.

So a pursuit of Arenado wouldn’t be cut-and-dry. But Schmidt never called Chipper Jones, Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen, David Wright or Evan Longoria his heir apparent. There is a part of you that thinks because Arenado is such a smart player, he would figure out a way to transfer his offensive prowess to another stadium. And if so, that’s the type of player that could help put your team on a parade float. Or, you know, help Middleton get his ******* trophy back.

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