Matt Holliday is not having a great year. It would be hard to say he is having a bad year, exactly, since he has hit .281/.362/.446 (128 wRC+) for the Cardinals, who are still within striking distance of the Pirates for first place in the Central, and as of today would be the top National League Wildcard team.
Holliday is clearly not playing up to his past standard, though. His 128 wRC+ is his worst since 2005, and his power, in particular, has dropped off, as he has only a a .165 ISO — the worst of his career. While some defensive metrics (somewhat controversially) used to see him as a good left fielder, the last couple of seasons even those that used to like his fielding have seen him as decidedly poor. Holliday has also missed more games than usual this year due to nagging injuries. He is also grounding into double plays at a rather frightening, Billy-Butler-in-2010 rate.
Still, all of that in itself would not necessarily be a problem for Holliday given his bat. The issue is that Holliday is 33, is making $17 million this year, and is guaranteed that same amount every season through 2016. Some of that money is deferred, but that is still a lot of money for a declining outfielder in his thirties.
This sort of outcome was the sort of thing people worried about when the Cardinals gave Holliday his seven-year, $120 million deal prior to the 2010 season. However, rather than confirming those concerns, a closer look at the Cardinals’ decision making since that deal have made it appear to be a sound choice.
Way back in January 2010, I was still wet behind the ears as a FanGraphs writer, and remember jumping on the chance to write about the Holliday contract right when it was announced. Looking back at one’s own work from more than three years ago is, well, something, but hopefully that is a sign of personal progress. Maybe. Personal reflections aside, my basic take was that while the Cardinals paid basically market value for a player of Holliday’s projected value over the life of the contract, it would make it difficult to retain other stars in the future given their budget — namely, Albert Pujols.
It made sense at the time. And despite the down year this year, Holliday has lived up to his end of the deal. Holliday had a monster 2010 for St. Louis, playing in 158 games and putting up a 149 wRC+ on the way to a six-win season, and as Jack Moore noted at the time, it made the deal look great. In 2011, Holliday hit even better (154 wRC+). Despite playing in only 124 games during the regular season, he was a big part of the Cardinals’ path to the playoffs and eventually the World Series Championship, as they needed every win they could get.
The ensuing off-season was the big test, at least from the perspective of my post at the time of the signing, as Albert Pujols was headed into free agency. It became clear pretty quickly that Pujols was not going to come back to St. Louis. Even if Pujols would have given St. Louis a bit of a hometown discount, it is hard to imagine that the Cardinals could have offered him anything in the discount neighborhood compared to the 10 years and $240 million he received from the Angels.
Obviously, Pujols is making the Cardinals look pretty smart in that respect, as Pujols’ contract and recent performance are, well, you know. This is not the place to revisit the details of Pujols’ stunning decline. Maybe the Cardinals saw this coming, but I personally rather doubt that even the Cardinals saw Pujols declining this quickly. And even if Pujols looked like he would still be a five- or six- win player after 2011 for a few years, I seriously doubt the Cardinals would have been able to retain him given the deal he received.
What is particularly interesting is not even that Holliday has clearly out-hit Pujols in each season since 2011. What interests me more is the notion that the Cardinals probably already knew that they were not going to retain Pujols when they signed Holliday during the 2009-2010 off-season. As noted, at the time I and others thought that the problem with the Holliday deal in context was that it would make it difficult for them to both retain Pujols and field enough quality on the rest of the roster to keep contending. Even if Holliday played well, as he went on to do, it would not be enough.
What I, at least, did not consider seriously enough, was that the Cardinals would be willing to part with Pujols. They reportedly made offers, but they did not seem serious. Nor did they need Holliday to outplay his projected long-term value (although he did, at least for the first couple of years). For one thing, the Cardinals’ farm system had already started to produce wins for the post-Pujols era and continues to do so: David Freese, Allan Craig, Matt Carpenter, Shelby Miller, and more. Moreover, without a massive Pujols contract and his decline years hanging over their heads, the Cardinals were able to invest in other veterans that could help their club: Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, and Adam Wainwright, among others.
Not everything has worked, and I suppose the farm system solution is rather obvious. That being said, by spreading out the risk among multiple veterans on mostly shorter contracts, the Cardinals have been able to fill the holes left by Pujols’ departure and those they have not yet been able to fill from their farm system. They have not had to drastically rebuild, making it to the NLCS last year, being on the path for the playoffs this year, and seemingly ready to continue contending for years to come.
Matt Holliday is still a pretty good player (and his career has been underrated), but he is not what he used to be. Like just about every player in their thirties, he is likely to continue his decline. Yes, the Cardinals got good value on the first part of his contract, but, as with most of these long-term contracts, they are probably going to have to pay it back during the coming years. Given their other decisions and how well it has worked out, it is hard not to think that St. Louis had it planned this way all along.
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