Matt Holliday Got Screwed

There will come a time this year when Matt Holliday won’t look quite like the player he does now. He won’t have posted a 174 wRC+ in his last 39 plate appearances. He won’t be getting rave reviews from the famously fickle New York City media. He may pick up an injury or two.

There will also be a point—probably, maybe, dear God I hope so—when the Cardinals’ lineup doesn’t look quite like the bizarre, helpless mess that it often has in the first couple weeks of the season. There’s still time for Jhonny Peralta to turn it around. There’s still time for one or both of Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong to finally assert themselves as key everyday players. There’s still time for Mike Matheny to abandon the Matt Adams experiment, or for John Mozeliak to further coax and contort the roster into something Matheny can’t find a way to misuse.

If and when all of this happens, though, what many Cardinals fans are going to feel on a visceral level this weekend will still be true: kicking Holliday to the curb late last year was an incredibly poor piece of judgment, unfair both to the player and to fans, and an obvious product of two of the organization’s most damaging and artificial limitations.

Barely 48 hours before the clock ran down on a frustrating 2016 season, the Cardinals let it be known that they wouldn’t exercise Matt Holliday’s $17 million club option for 2017, kicking off a surreal weekend during which fans were left to figure out on their own what no one would come out and say (that he almost certainly would not return to the Cardinals at all), emotionally process the departure of a franchise great, and watch a highly dramatic if somewhat haphazard series of farewells—all in the heat of a down-to-the-wire wild-card race in which the Cardinals came up one game short.

It was a lot, and for some of us there was an added layer of confusion. Why had the possibility of a new, reduced deal been so clearly ruled out? What kind of talks had been had? Was the club not willing to meet Holliday’s demands? Was he simply determined to test the free-agent market before making a decision?

On the Monday following Holliday’s final farewell, Derrick Goold, in a live chat at STLToday.com, offered some clarification—that is, if you want to call it clarification at all. Here’s the exchange in full:

QUESTION: Did ‘Mo’ approach Holliday with an alternative offer and he said no? Or did that conversation not happen?

GOOLD: It did not happen. The injury scuttled that plan, those planned conversations. Holliday went to Mozeliak this past week and wanted clarity on his future. Mozeliak gave it to him. A farewell weekend was planned.

Follow-up: The fact that Matt Holliday was taken out by an inside pitch that broke his hand is the reason we bailed on him? That sounds pretty lame, especially a guy with his track record. Is that to say that if he had not been hurt, we would have gone after him on a reduced deal?

GOOLD: Exactly. My stance/reporting on this has not changed through all of these chats. Waaaaay back in spring it became apparent that the Cardinals did not plan on exercising his option, and both sides wanted to have a conversation about folding it into an extension of some type that would give the Cardinals a reduced rate in the coming year and Holliday a chance to retire as a Cardinal.

The injury happened. The conversation didn’t happen. It’s a brutal business.

Despite Goold’s matter-of-fact tone, nothing about this explanation made any sense. Holliday’s fractured thumb was the kind of injury that could’ve happened to any player, young or old, and there was no reason to think it would significantly impact his outlook this year and beyond.

Holliday’s performance throughout his thirties had already consistently defied the aging curve, and even after two rough, injury-shortened seasons, various projection systems were confident that he could continue to be a solid contributor to a major-league team. He’d finally gotten around to playing a little first base, and there was every possibility of one of the best and most reliable hitters of the last ten years having a true bounce-back season.

The Yankees soon picked Holliday up on a one-year, $13 million deal. It’s almost impossible to believe that he wouldn’t have taken less to stay in the city he and his family had called home for the previous seven years, but regardless of whether or not the Cardinals would’ve had to match the Yankees’ offer, abruptly closing the door on an extension wasn’t just a poor decision—it was strange and out of character for an organization that had never lacked a willingness to hedge its bets and explore all options.

And, again, the attempt to pin this all on a poorly-timed broken thumb simply doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s far more plausible that Holliday became a victim of Mozeliak’s need to grapple with Cardinals’ two biggest organizational shortcomings: the Matheny handicap and Bill DeWitt’s spending allergy.

The optimal role for Holliday on the 2017 Cardinals would’ve had to have been dynamic, evolving based on his performance, his health, and where there was opportunity or need in the lineup—requiring a manager with both the critical-thinking skills necessary to effectively balance these concerns and the leadership ability to navigate the egos and clubhouse politics that may have complicated things; Mike Matheny has neither. Mozeliak went out of his way this offseason to build Matheny the most one-dimensional and un-mismanageable roster possible, and the Cardinals have already played over 27 of their 79 defensive innings this season with Matt fucking Adams in left fucking field.

And yet it seems entirely possible that Mozeliak would’ve rolled the dice if Holliday’s price tag had been equal to what the Cardinals are paying José Martínez (to be a younger, lesser right-handed bench bat/outfielder/first baseman) or Tommy Pham (to wallow in Memphis and sub-fave his employer). For all the talk of the money spent on free agents Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil over the winter, the Cardinals payroll is at roughly the same level it was last season—and lower when adjusting for revenue growth—thanks to the departures of Holliday, Jaime García, and others. An extra $13 million or so would’ve been no burden whatsoever to the Cardinals, who have increasingly failed to spend to their level in recent years.

Even if Holliday wouldn’t have fully justified $13 million on the field—though at this point, it’s a decent bet that he will—there was value in him sticking around and potentially ending his career in the city where he’d been a star for so many years. Instead, we had to watch him celebrate his 2,000th hit in pinstripes, and are quite likely to have to watch him mash the hell out of Cardinals pitching for a mercifully short weekend at Yankee Stadium. Wherever the story goes from here, we shouldn’t suffer any illusions about why it had to be this way.