Nothing says Lukewarm Stove season like a rebuilding team making bids on the biggest remaining free agent contract of the offseason. I don't want to start doubting Scott Boras now, because he's given me no reason to in the past, but if the Orioles are being floated as the other team this late in the game—well, the Yankees and Mets are presumably way under the radar on this one.
I actually wouldn't hate this move from Baltimore's standpoint. They've got a pretty good system, with some young pitching set to renovate what was a hilariously bad rotation—they collectively managed 58 quality starts, six fewer than the next team and 41 fewer than league leading Atlanta—and signing Garrett Atkins and trading for Kevin Millwood are low-risk moves that will be an easy upgrade from Melvin Mora and the back of that rotation's awful work. The Orioles, like the Pirates in the NL Central, simply can't afford to be terrible any more; their attendance has fallen into a huge hole and they're in a division that squashes the hopes and dreams of plucky fans as a matter of course. Their moves in this offseason have pushed them toward being respectable in the short term without hindering their chances of being good in the long term.
But while spending a ton of money on a free agent would be the perfect capper to an offseason designed to inspire fanbase confidence, this is not the right offseason, and Matt Holliday is not the right free agent. The Orioles already have too many cheap, effective outfielders—Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Nolan Reimold, perpetual tradebait Luke Scott, and former Cubs super-prospect and erstwhile hometown discount inducer Felix Pie are all competing for at-bats—and all of their most pressing needs, and the easiest places to pick up runs against a troupe of very real replacement players, are on the pitching side. O's management seems to have understood that to this point, replacing their worst players with some potentially average players and Mike Gonzalez. Holliday would be a step back from that plan.
Of course, the Orioles not making their rumored move does not mean the Cardinals do sign him, as wonderful a system as that would be. All that implausibility still leaves Matt Holliday wanting more than $128 million, and the Cardinals (reasonably) not wanting quite that much Matt Holliday.
The payroll is not a gift card; the money DeWitt is planning to spend right now does not expire, and if he spends it all in the next thirty days he will not receive an even larger inheritance. But the Cardinals' other options are looking increasingly unappetizing. From a blurb about how the Cardinals are not interested in Chien-Ming Wang, but might be:
The Cardinals have said if they fail to re-sign Holliday they could turn to signing a veteran starting pitcher for the fifth spot in the rotation. Their preference would be to do so on a one-year deal.
Try not to be too excited about that sentence, or this one, because according to VEB's hit-tracker you're probably reading it at work: if the Cardinals do not manage to sign a popular, slugging outfielder to the largest contract in the history of the franchise, thereby setting its course for the next decade, they could sign a veteran starting pitcher like Chien-Ming Wang to a one-year deal. For all we know, this conditional has been around for the last several years—the Cardinals didn't sign Matt Holliday in any of them, and as a result picked up Kyle Lohse, Kip Wells, Brett Tomko, and Matt Clement.
I don't envy Mozeliak and DeWitt here; this is simply awful timing for the Cardinals' last serious free-payroll run at the free agent market before they need to worry about Pujols. Jason Bay, whose contractual demands—he might want five years—are relatively piddling, is the only other Big Name player on the market, and the defensive collapse brought on by his knee problems in 2007 makes him a much riskier upgrade. If Holliday falls through, that's it; for all their good intentions, the Cardinals will have little choice but to have a typical Cardinals offseason.
If that means an outfield cobbled together from spare parts, here's my current pick—a Jack Cust/Allen Craig platoon with a variation on the old Killer Bees tag team trick. La Russa has them both wear masks, and between innings Brendan Ryan is used to create a distraction; if pro wrestling has taught me anything, and it has, the umpire won't know that Craig has secretly taken left field while his back was turned.