JUPITER, Fla. — In the six years since Nolan Arenado first took part in the World Baseball Classic, he has grown into one of the pillars of Team USA as well as one of the current cornerstones of the Cardinals.
In 2017, Arenado looked like a player the Colorado Rockies would build around. A trade between the Rockies and the Cardinals before the 2021 season changed that permanently.
His participation with Team USA wasn’t initially a guarantee, either. He felt the pull in multiple directions because of his family’s background. He seriously considered playing for Team Puerto Rico, and had discussions with then-manager Eduardo Perez and general manager Alex Cora.
“It would have been an honor to represent them too, especially for my mom and my family,” Arenado said. “But it just felt right, me representing the USA. I was born in California. I was born in this country. My dad coming from Cuba, my aunts, uncles, all them coming from Cuba to the United States, having what we have here compared to what they have there — the freedoms we have — I just wanted to represent that.”
His leadership roles with Team USA and the Cardinals provided dual motivations this offseason for Arenado, an already highly motivated seven-time All-Star and one of the game’s elite third basemen.
Winning a championship with the Cardinals remains Arenado’s driving force, but he fully has embraced the national pride and responsibility associated with being a member of Team USA.
“When you play in a regular major-league season, you hear the national anthem every day and it’s awesome, it’s amazing,” Arenado said. “But sometimes you almost take it for granted because you hear it every day. When you wear USA across the chest and then you hear the national anthem, it hits a little bit differently.
“I’m just proud to represent my country. It’s an honor. I love this country. I’m very fortunate that I get to play Major League Baseball here, make the money that I make here, have my family here. We get to do a lot of things I’m very thankful about.”
Asked if he approached this offseason as getting ready for the Major League Baseball season or getting ready for the WBC, Arenado said, “I think there’s a fine line. You’re right. I would say the way I trained this offseason, the way I got ready was more for the season than for the WBC. Once I came out to Florida, I started focusing on the WBC, running a lot more, doing a lot more, facing pitchers a little bit earlier than I would.”
Arenado entered this winter coming off of one of the best all-around seasons of any player in the majors. He finished third in the National League MVP voting, behind his friend and teammate Paul Goldschmidt, the winner, and Manny Machado.
Last season, Arenado batted .293 with a .358 on-base percentage, a .533 slugging percentage, 30 home runs and 103 RBIs. He won his fifth Silver Slugger Award, and also became the second player in MLB history — the first in the NL — to win a Gold Glove Award in each of his first 10 seasons.
He tied Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt for second-most career Gold Glove wins at third base behind Brooks Robinson’s 16. Arenado also earned his sixth Platinum as the top defender in the National League.
“I think there’s ways I could get better,” Arenado said. “Of course, everybody wants to hit more homers, more RBIs, higher average. I don’t think those are the right goals for me at this stage anymore. My goal is to stay healthy. If I’m healthy, I believe I’m going to do what I need to do to help this team win. My focus is more on helping this team win any way I can.”
Arenado went into the offseason feeling like he wasn’t as consistent as he needed to be in 2022. He pointed to a bad offensive performance in May — he slashed .196/.270/.373 that month — as an example.
Despite his overall production, he described last season as having “peaks and valleys.”
Of course, those are relative terms. Arenado has slashed .289/.346/.535 for his career.
“Different players have different peaks and valleys,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “His are shorter. He’s good enough to find his way out of them pretty quickly.
“But this is a guy who is never going to be complacent and feel good about where he’s at. He’s continuously wanting to improve. He had a top three MVP season and he’s still going to try to figure out ways to get better and come into camp even more ready, and we’re seeing that. It’s what allows him to be one of the best in the league.”
Entering Sunday’s game against the New York Mets at Roger Dean Stadium, Arenado tied for second place among the Grapefruit League leaders in hits (seven), extra-base hits (four) and total bases (15). He’d also launched a pair of home runs. In six total spring training games, he is eight for 14 (.571).
“I like that I’m hitting the ball hard,” Arenado said. “There are still some things that I would like to do better. I’d like to drive the ball better. I know I’ve driven the ball pretty good, but there’s still room to grow and get better at driving the ball. I like where I’m at, but I don’t love it.”
On Sunday, Arenado played in his last Grapefruit League game before the WBC. He’s expected to be in camp early Monday, but then he’ll shift gears and join Team USA.
While his sights will be set on chasing a gold medal and the deep responsibility he feels in representing his home country, there’s a part of him that’s counting on the WBC to lift him to another level when he exchanges the red, white and blue for his Cardinals uniform.
“I think the WBC helps with getting ready for the season, for the environment,” Arenado said. “It speeds up the process for sure. Intense games. Dealing with the pressures and all that stuff. It’s going to speed it up for sure. I love it.
“I don’t know how this year is going to go. I pray that it goes well, and I feel confident with it. But in 2017, I had arguably the best year of my career. And I think the WBC had a big part of that.”
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