The Matt Holliday Limbo Trade


That was a nice palate-cleanser, wasn't it? One game in Washington, where the two most important players are unsigned and undrafted, respectively, between the Houston problems and the a series against the world champs that begins with a lefty of indeterminate ability; one Rick Ankiel home run between the bizarre ending of the Chris Duncan era and the bizarre beginning of Matt Holliday and the Cardinals' meet-cute.

Meanwhile, the New Adam Wainwright era appears to be in full swing--July, in which he's struck out 33 in 30 innings, is the first time he's pushed the strikeouts past a batter an inning since he was a rookie closer in the playoffs--and with his ERA now cleanly under 3.00 it's a good symbolic moment to remove the de facto from his two years-and-running stint as the Cardinals' ace. It's not that I was very skeptical of Wainwright, these last few years, it's just that I always felt a little like I should be--second degree skepticism, I guess.

I know I'm the last person on this website to crown Wainwright, but it still feels good to do it, especially knowing that he's under team control until 2013. (I couldn't possibly love that contract any more than I do right now. It's just impossible.)

Speaking of team control: it was a strange night to be a Cardinals fan. It'll probably be a strange afternoon.

It started, insofar as I can tell, with this skimpy little sources-say piece from a San Francisco paper. The news: that the Cardinals might be "inching" toward a deal that surrenders Brett Wallace, out of something like necessity--the only other option is Josh Willingham, a vaguely above average ex-catcher, kind of a working-order, right-handed version of Chris Duncan.

It's easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to dismiss this as more inside speculation than inside information. The Cardinals have just traded a left fielder; to an Unnamed NL Source with more opinions than sense, one that does not know the battle of the burnt-out left fielders that's been raging in St. Louis all year, that might be a clearer sign that they're in the market than it really is. Losing one half of the Cardinals' terrible twosome doesn't make them any more in the hunt than they were before; it was a platoon of desperation, not of efficiency.

But that was just the beginning. Later Buster Olney commented that one source pegged the odds of the deal at a very convenient 50/50. (Imagine the back-room tension: "The way I see it," the source says, a cigar in his mouth, a pool cue in his hand, "it either happens or it doesn't. You can print that, Olney.")

Things came to a head when Steve Stone twittered that it "looks like cards will make a deal for holliday." If you were just reading this on Steve Stone's twitter you might be forgiven for thinking that this was little more than speculation. But that would fail to take into account the unwarranted, unintentional nuance that comes with arbitrarily brief social networking sites. Tim Dierkes, mlbtraderumors maven, retweeted without comment Stone's protected tweet. (I feel ridiculous typing these words.) Selection, in fiction and in twitter, is as important as anything: that the trade rumors czar felt it necessary to repeat Stone's words made it seem like insider information.

And that's where we are. Maybe it's for the best to get out the angst--for make no mistake, this is probably a bad move, if it happens--over the course of several days. When the Cardinals traded Haren, Barton, and Calero for Mulder (sorry for bringing it up) I heard it over the phone, having seen no rumors, and it was all I could do to avoid ripping the phone from the wall and throwing it--well, against another wall in my Daric Barton-induced fury.

I'll say this: this is a better trade than the offseason rumor that had Holliday going to St. Louis in exchange for Ludwick, who is basically a cheaper version of the same player. It's like the difference between Joel Pineiro, when he was getting beaten into the ground, and Todd Wellemeyer, when he is getting beaten into the ground: they're both bad pitchers, but one of them shows at least the shreds of a plan--you can see where the gears turn.

Trading Brett Wallace for Matt Holliday, who would presumably be extended, is almost sure to be a lopsided move in terms of total value. Wallace, even if he disappoints, will be cheap; Holliday, even if he succeeds, will be expensive. The difference is such that it'll be hard for Holliday to make it up.

But Matt Holliday and Brett Wallace are at least valuable at different moments. Holliday is a fine player right now; he does everything pretty well, and even if his power only recovers a little bit out of Oakland, where nobody's hitting home runs, he's a  vast upgrade over what the Cardinals have received from the third outfield spot to this point. (Of course, Josh Willingham would be, too.)

Brett Wallace, meanwhile, is, for an untouchable prospect, an uncertain fit. His defense is a question mark, and if the answer's not to our liking he's in serious trouble in St. Louis. His offensive pedigree is undeniable but he's neither dominating Memphis in the short term nor showing major power potential in the long term. He's a better prospect than Daric Barton, but he's also older than Barton was. (He is, in fact, just a year younger than Barton.) He would probably help the Cardinals right now, but the degree to which he would is an open question.

Albert Pujols is having the best year of his career. Chris Carpenter is healthy, Adam Wainwright is pitching better than ever, and the Cardinals are a basically competent team with some enormous holes in it. Holliday patches one right now. I'm finally against the deal, but there is at least one sense in which this iteration of the Matt Holliday deal would have a serious and unique impact.

Trading Wallace, as opposed to Ludwick, for Matt Holliday is taking a lump sum payout on a great annuity. It's terrible financial advice, but if there's a once-in-a-lifetime deal for a big trophy with a bunch of flags on it, well, broken-down analogies fly forever. Hopefully Rick Ankiel shows up again in the Phillies series and it's a moot point.

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