Keeping Nolan Arenado happy and engaged is a high priority for Cardinals this offseason

Nolan Arenado’s persistently cranky back hastening an early end to a lost season is hardly a cause for serious concern, but it does portend future challenges that must be front of mind for the Cardinals’ brass as they prepare to attack their most crucial offseason in perhaps two decades.

Approaching the team’s first 90-loss season since 1990, Arenado can be more than forgiven for not going through the necessary routine to play third base every day simply to chase personal milestones. This is the first full season in which he’s finished with less than 30 home runs and 100 RBI since 2014, but he remains unquestionably at the center of whatever offensive threat they might pose.

He’s also the backbone of the defense, and its regression this year in part reflects his own. As the trade deadline approached, Arenado explained to reporters that he’d altered some of his pregame preparation work in deference to his age and the grind of a full season with the World Baseball Classic as a lead in. Taking fewer reps, he reasoned, had impacted his timing and his throwing, and he took corrective action.

According to FanGraphs, Arenado finishes the year with a net 0 defensive runs saved. That’s the worst mark of his career and a far tumble from last season’s total of 19, but given the depths he reached in the negative range in the first half, has to be looked upon as a positive.

The other issue Arenado was forced to address during those deadline-adjacent conversations was the lingering background noise about interest from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cardinals made clear in every discussion at every level that neither Arenado nor Paul Goldschmidt would be traded, and no outlets or reporters with established connections to the team (including this one) wavered from that.

The noise persisted in part because it was to the benefit of the Dodgers to stoke that fire. If they could signal strong public interest to Arenado, perhaps he could be tempted, and if it put a thumb in the Cardinals’ eye in the process, so much the better.

Arenado, for his part, got most of the way out of the clubhouse one night before turning on his heel to answer an exhaustive battery of questions about the reports with all of the enthusiasm of a pre-root canal check in with the dentist.

Over and over, he explained, his desire was for the Cardinals to be the best possible team, and he understands the business, and it’s everyone’s job to exhaustively explore every conversation. Eventually, the simple question was posed to him – isn’t the best version of the Cardinals the version that includes him on the roster?

He half laughed and played off an answer about his having played poorly to date, but he knew as well as everyone else in the scrum that the answer was yes. The best version of the Cardinals, then, now, and moving forward, is the version that includes an engaged Arenado turning in the sort of performance at third base that eludes everyone else in his generation.

That, then, is at the top of the list of reasons why John Mozeliak’s front office simply cannot afford to make mistakes this winter.

Part of the agita of the summer rumblings from Los Angeles came from a deep-seated psychological wound on the part of St. Louis sports fans about the possibility of losing another treasured sports asset. But part, no doubt, came from what is plainly true – the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and Arenado has muscled his way out of a bad situation before. He knows how to do it if he wants, and if he has a destination waiting with open arms.

The deal which brought him to St. Louis would be perhaps the most lopsided in franchise history if not for the largesse of Brock for Broglio. The Rockies knew, despite suggestions to the contrary, that Arenado wanted to go only one place, and he personally involved himself in the negotiations to make it happen after years of quiet, direct lobbying from Yadier Molina, among others.

There is nothing to suggest that the Cardinals have yet arrived at that point, save for the obvious frustration growing on Arenado’s face in the season’s closing weeks and staggering stumble down the standings. Everyone who talks about him talks about his surpassing desire to win; those same people just watched his team spend a year losing in a way it hasn’t over the span of his lifetime.

Whatever mistakes the front office has made to reach this point, losing Arenado would eclipse them all. It would be catching a world record fish, posing for photos, accepting congratulations, putting it on the scale, and then punting it back into the ocean themselves.

If they were to lose Arenado’s trust and be backed into a corner, whatever spin they attempted would not distract from the truth – that would be a mistake that could and should end careers.

Former Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich currently lists himself on LinkedIn as “self-employed.” His choice of prefix may be generous. It’s also more than appropriate, given the bumbling way he showed Arenado no other direction than toward the door.

This is the winter in which the Cardinals will have an opportunity to avoid the same mistakes. Legacies rely on those choices.