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Posted: Tuesday January 5, 2010 10:04PM; Updated: Tuesday January 5, 2010 10:07PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>INSIDE BASEBALL

Will big gamble stack the Cards?

Story Highlights

Matt Holliday received the biggest offer in Cardinals history

There's no way the Cards would sacrifice their ability to keep Pujols

So the $120 million question is, is Holliday worth this payroll crunch?

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Matt Holliday has been one of the best players in the game over the past four seasons.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
MLB Team Page

After weeks of seemingly bidding against themselves for his services, the Cardinals have finally reached an agreement to keep Matt Holliday in St. Louis. The contract, which according to Jon Heyman is worth $120 million over seven years, will lock up Holliday until he's 36, with an average annual salary of just over $17 million. Though the money involved is well short of the $180 over eight years fellow Scott Boras client Mark Teixeira received from the Yankees a year ago, it is a much larger portion of the Cardinals' payroll, which has averaged just over $90 million a year over the last five seasons, and the largest contract ever handed out by the team.

The previous title holder for largest Cardinals contract was Albert Pujols, who was given a seven-year, $100 million extension in February 2004. That extension, a masterstroke by current Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, includes a $16 million club option for the 2011 season, but is nonetheless nearing its end, making it impossible to view Holliday's new deal without considering its impact on the Cardinals' active efforts to retain Pujols beyond 2011.

Even in light of Holliday's new contract, the Cardinals have very few contractual commitments in the coming years. The only other Cardinal guaranteed more than $1 million beyond 2011 is Kyle Lohse, who will earn just under $12 million in 2012, the final year of his ill-conceived four-year extension, the handiwork of current GM John Mozeliak. Aces Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter and All-Star catcher Yadier Molina all have club options for 2012 (for $9 million, $15 million, and $7 million, respectively) with Wainwright having an additional $12 million option for 2013. If all three stay healthy, the Cardinals are unlikely to find better bargains on the open market, but if the team picks up all three options, they'll have roughly $60 million committed to five players in 2012, and with Pujols a potential $30 million player, they could surpass their 2009 payroll on just six players. That means the Cardinals are either going to have to significantly increase their payroll, pinch pennies everywhere other than first base and left field, or bid goodbye to Pujols after 2011 if not before.

It's flatly inconceivable that the Cardinals would sacrifice their ability to keep Pujols, who is not only the face of the franchise but the best player in the game and one of the ten greatest hitters of all time, for Holliday, a solid all-around player but one who comes with significant questions about his true level of production given the effects of his home ballparks prior to his arrival in St. Louis. The most likely scenario, really the only one that makes sense, is an increase in payroll. Even with young players such as Colby Rasmus, Brendan Ryan, and David Freese in the starting lineup, with more than $40 million annually committed to just two players, the Cardinals will be hard pressed to field a balanced team and keep team payroll under $100 million.

So the $120 million question is, is Holliday worth this sudden payroll crunch, particularly with Pujols' future with the team still unknown. Based on his unadjusted overall numbers, Holliday has been one of the best players in the game over the past four seasons. Over that span, he has hit .325/.399/.563 with seasonal averages of 30 homers, 112 RBIs, 110 runs, 43 doubles, and 16 stolen bases (at a hearty 80 percent success rate). Holliday has also emerged as an excellent defensive outfielder during that span. On the surface, he is a deserved star, a middle-of-the-order hitter on a championship team, as the scouts would say.

The knock on Holliday has always been that, as a late-blooming Rockie (his first big season came at age 26 in 2006), he was a product of Coors Field's hitter-friendly dimensions and Denver's thin air. Indeed, his home/road splits while a member of the Rockies were striking. In just 50 more at-bats, Holliday hit 40 more home runs at Coors than on the road, putting up a .357/.423/.645 line at home and a decidedly average .280/.348/.455 line on the road (the average major league left fielder hit .270/.341/.440 in 2009).

When the A's acquired Holliday from the Rockies last offseason (the first in a series of deals that ultimately netted them Phillies outfield prospect Michael Taylor), many around baseball believed we'd finally get to see how the "real" Holliday hit, and when his Oakland line came up alarmingly close to the above road mark (.286/.378/.454, the extra walks likely due to his being pitched around in a weak lineup, though he was rarely passed intentionally), everyone's worst fears seemed to be confirmed. Then Holliday was traded to St. Louis and hit .353/.419/.604 over the remainder of the season.

Was it a fluke? Was it the effect of hitting behind the great Pujols? Or was there something else going on? As for hitting behind Pujols, Albert was intentionally walked 44 times in 2009, but just ten of those came after Holliday was inserted in the cleanup spot behind him in the order, and one of those came on the final day of the season in a game Holliday did not start. In his nine plate appearances following an intentional pass to Pujols, Holliday went 3-for-6 with a double, a homer, two walks (one also intentional), a hit by pitch, and seven RBIs. That's impressive, but so small a sample as to be completely meaningless, particularly when one considers that managers rarely have their pitchers issue intentional walks when they're pitching well.

We can gleen more by looking at Holliday's home/road splits while with the A's and Cardinals. It's quite possible that Holliday wasn't as much of a Coors product as he seemed, rather he might just be a homebody. Per the park factors in the 2010 Bill James Handbook, both the Oakland Coliseum and the new Busch Stadium are murder on right-handed home run hitters (the latter of which makes Pujols' success all the more striking), but Holliday homered almost twice as often at home as on the road in 2009, a rate that stayed consistent across his two home ballparks. Indeed, while the Oakland Coliseum is a notoriously pitcher-friendly ballpark, Holliday got on base as often and slugged 62 points higher there than while playing on the road as an Athletic. Holliday is also a career .379/.451/.722 hitter at the new Busch Stadium having hit .377/.442/.677 there as a Cardinal last year and .385/.478/.872 with five home runs in 39 previous at-bats. Those are also small-sample statistics likely to trend back toward his career rates over time, but it's quite possible that they'll trend back to his overall career rates, not his underwhelming road numbers.

The reason I say that is the issue of Holliday's leg kick. Boras made some waves during the General Manager meetings in November when he blamed Holliday briefly abandoning the large leg kick in his swing for his player's early season struggles, then suggested that the decision to abandon the trigger mechanism had come after Holliday did some offseason work with former Athletic Mark McGwire, who has recently been hired to be the Cardinals' hitting coach for 2010. Per some solid reporting from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold, it's true that McGwire did suggest he abandon the kick last offseason, but it was also McGwire who suggested he start using it back in 2006, which eliminates some of the concern that hitting coach McGwire might "ruin" Holliday again.

More importantly, Boras' story largely checks out in Holliday's game logs. Boras said that Holliday brought back the leg kick five weeks into the 2009 season and, "from that point on, he was the same player he always has been." Indeed, Holliday was hitting .226/.282/.383 on May 10 of last year, then hit .316/.420/.489 over his remaining 65 games with the A's and was on a tear, hitting .338/.413/.574 in July, when he was traded to St. Louis. Small sample warnings continue to abound, but when you look at those numbers in the larger context of Holliday's career, the four-season run I detailed above, and his all-around excellence and athleticism, it seems Holliday is indeed worth the financial commitment the Cardinals have made to him. Still, the success of the Holliday contract depends as much on Pujols as Holliday. If for any reason the Cardinals come up short in their efforts to retain Prince Albert, Holliday will get the blame, and it will make the fallout from his Division Series gaffe this October feel like a paper cut by comparison.

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