Holliday and the Cardinals’ Post-Pujols Plan

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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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

23 Responses to “Holliday and the Cardinals’ Post-Pujols Plan”

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  1. maguro says:

    All very well and good, Klaasen, but where is your article on Bruce Chen? That’s what we’re all waiting for, the dude is absolutely crushing it.

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  2. Mike Green says:

    Some people didn’t think much of the Cardinal farm system at the time:


    A bunch of role players (like Allen Craig, David Freese, Matt Carpenter and Jon Jay) and Shelby Miller…

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    • Luther's van dross says:

      Indeed. As well as Matt Adams, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Oscar Taveras, Joe Kelly, and Kevin Siegrist. The latter pair may well turn out to be “role players,” but the others look like more than that going forward. Perhaps much more.

      That Sports Illustrated hack basically couldn’t have been more wrong, when it came to St. Louis’ farm system of four years back.

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  3. Ben says:

    What’s the present value of a win? He could have a nap and a sandwich for the next couple years and more or less end up being worth the contract from a $/WAR perspective.

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  4. olethros says:

    The Cardinals were serious about retaining Pujols back then, but every one of their pre-FA overtures was met with a non-negotiable A-Rod years/dollars counteroffer.

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  5. Anon says:

    The Holliday contract and the Berkman extension are the biggest signs that the Cardinals front office knew there was a high probability of Pujols leaving.

    Also, Wainwright and Molina likely don’t get thier current extensions if a Pujols contract is on the books.

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  6. Baltar says:

    I laugh at the many, many people, mostly Angels fans, who lauded the Pujols contract. It was worth every penny of the staggering price for the guy who would fill their stadium every day and ensure that the Angels were in the playoffs every year.

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  7. Juan says:

    The Angels have always been full of themselves. All the money they
    have spent on free agents in the last forty years, but have only
    one World Championship to show for it! And … they were lucky to
    get that one.

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    • Richie says:

      And the one that won it was remarkably unreliant on high-priced free agents by Angel standards, wasn’t it?

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    • Brian says:

      The funniest part about the Angels spending all that money on Pujols, Hamilton, Wilson and Weaver is that the best player BY FAR on their roster will earn the league minimum until the 2015 season.

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  8. croggs says:

    Is it conceivable to think the Cards would deal Holliday at a future trade deadline? I think it would be interesting to see Mo pull off a “bold” move by dealing him if the Cards are in the playoff hunt 2-3 seasons down the road. Some things would have to fall in place, but Oscar is on his way up, Craig can play OF at a similar level as Holliday with Adams taking over at 1B.

    I don’t think Mo would do this because of how poorly people would perceive it, but I thought the Rangers’ willingness to trade Nathan (assuming they were actually willing to do so for a reasonable return) was refreshing. Sure, closers are easier to replace and Nathan’s much older. Still, if your team has guys that can replace, or almost replace, the value of a current player while getting valuable future assets, then trading seems like a reasonable option.

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  9. Jim says:

    Its not that Mo wouldn’t trade him. It is more like who is going to trade for him. He is owed $52 million over the next three years counting the 17 option and is in decline. Who would trade for him without the Cards picking up a good portion of the salary? And why would he Cards pay him to play for someone else. He will play out the next three years and probably average around 120 games and 2.0 WAR per year. Not worth the money but not horrible either. He has already earned almost 18 WAR on this deal. If you figure $5 million per WAR (which is probably a lowball number) he has already earned $90 of the $120M total. Not a great contract but not horrible either.

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    • Felonius_Monk says:

      Holliday is on track for 3 WAR this year and the projection systems will have him factored in for 3-ish WAR next year again. He’s only 33.

      2 WAR for a guy who’s averaged about 6 per year for the last 6 years is too low. He’ll probably end up making 26, 27 WAR over the course of his contract. That’s worth something like $140m. I suspect it’ll end up being one of the better long-term deals signed in baseball this decade.

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  10. Ken says:

    Holliday! Celebrate!

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  11. Brian says:

    “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”

    My view on free agency:
    – top-tier free agents sign for too many years
    – low-tier free agents sign for too much money*

    *In my eyes, $5m/WAR is too much money for a simple 1 win player

    That’s why mid-tiered free agents are best. The AAV & length of the deal are typically within reason. They tend to fulfill the demands of their contracts, while providing an actual boost to the team.

    I think the Cardinals were lucky with Matt Holliday. The Cardinals could have easily experienced the same misfortunes that the Yankees experienced with Mark Teixeira. Luckily that was not situation, and that the Cardinals were wise to invest their funds for mid-tiered players, such as Beltran, Berkman, etc.

    – just based on my observations

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  12. BubbaNoTrubba says:

    The Holliday contract looks like one of the better long term contracts out there. I rather have his contract than Joey Votto’s insane albatross of a deal, eg.

    He’s currently averaging 4,6 WAR per season, even if he doesn’t increase his WAR for this year.

    As long as his total WAR for his contract is more than 26,6 WAR, Cardinals is getting their moneys worth.

    That is assuming the current “price per WAR” is 4,5 million.

    Right now Holliday has 18,4 WAR. Whic means he’s got three years and some months to get 8,2 WAR more.

    Which averages out to around 2,7 WAR per season.

    The point of all this number excersise is to show that the Holliday contract isn’t as bad as Klaaseen is making it out to be.

    Would it be smart for Cardinals to move Holliday? Probably, in the near time, trade him to a AL team where he can part time DH.

    But Holliday is no fiasco, no Pujols.

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  13. commenter #1 says:

    i think given the new TV money that the entire league is about to receive, $17 million/year for holliday will look very okay for the remainder of his deal

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  14. jirish says:

    Eh, I’m just not that into him. I know he’s been a good player and even had great seasons. He looks so damn awkward in the field and his body language is as if he’d rather be anywhere but on a baseball field.

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