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The Impending Moss/Holliday Decision

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One of the most interesting storylines of the upcoming offseason is going to be how the Cardinals deal with filling their left field/designated slugger hole.

Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals
Is this two core players? Or three?
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Yesterday, fearless leader Craig Edwards, of VEB fame, put together the first roster/salary matrix of the year, in trying to figure out just what the Cardinals’ budget might look like for the upcoming offseason. It will be the first of many, I’m sure; the roster matrix has become a fixture of the site over the past handful of years, and crops up constantly during the hot stove season as a remarkably helpful tool in keeping track of the club’s status at a given moment.

The results of said roster/salary examination exercise were...middling. The Cardinals are not in terrible shape, by any means, and the fact they only have a couple of large commitments that look unproductive on the books is encouraging. However, they also have approximately $121 million locked up already, and that’s bringing back a roster with some definite weaknesses another year older. The situation could certainly be worse, of course, but it could also be quite a bit better.

It’s fair to note at this point that that salary figure is approximate, given that it contains arbitration awards which are, of course, only estimates as of now. But, it’s a fine number to go with, as none of the assumptions are out of line, either high or low, by my brief eyeballing.

Of all the line items in that roster matrix, the one that stood out most to me is that of Matt Holliday, and his guaranteed one million dollar hit against the budget for next year. Of course, we all understand that one million salary is not what Matt Holliday will make playing for the Cardinals next year, and thus that $1 million will not buy the Redbirds any sort of production whatsoever, even of the relatively modest variety Holliday has provided this season. That guaranteed $1 million is the buyout on Matt’s option, valued at $17 million, so if the Cardinals want Matt Holliday’s production in their lineup next season (or, I suppose, if they value the soft factors surrounding Holliday remaining with the club in 2017), they’ll be on the hook for $16 million more than the roster matrix requires, boosting the payroll to more in the $135 million range, while still maintaining only what looks like a similar level of productivity.

There’s also a second very interesting line item in the matrix; actually, I suppose I should say there’s an interesting line item that doesn’t appear, and so is very notable by its absence. Nowhere in the roster/salary matrix pertaining to 2017 will you find a line item labeled “Brandon Moss”, and that, somewhat surprisingly, looks like it might be a pretty big problem.

The reason there’s no Brandon Moss line, I’m sure you all know, is because Brandon Moss is a free agent after this season, and thus as of right now has no place in the Cardinals’ plans for 2017 and beyond. And the reason that might be a fairly sizable problem is because Brandon Moss has actually been one of the Cardinals’ more productive hitters in 2016, and probably their most consistent source of over-the-fence power for the whole of the season.

Here’s the thing: the Matt Holliday option and Brandon Moss not being on the roster matrix for next season are not unrelated. In fact, one could make a very convincing argument that the two things are very nearly mutually exclusive; i.e. if you have one of the two players coming back, you probably can’t have the other.

Now, admittedly, it would seem not to be a financial reality that the Cardinals will have to see off either Moss or Holliday before next season. The team makes money hand over fist, and if they wanted to stretch financially in order to keep both players, it wouldn’t be any kind of real issue. In fact, were the Redbirds to pick up Holliday’s option and hand Moss a qualifying-offer-level salary, they would probably only then breach the $150 million mark, which the club could certainly afford in the short-term.

Problem with that is Jaime Garcia has an option for next year, as well, and the roster matrix only includes his very modest buyout; if you wanted to keep Jaime on board as well you’re looking at another ~$12 million. At that point you’re probably pushing into the mid-$160 million range, and I’m not sure the Cardinals want to go to that level just yet.

From where I’m sitting, Garcia almost has to be re-upped; his salary is affordable enough that even if the club considers him more luxury than necessity (which, admittedly, many of us thought coming into this season, and look how necessary his contributions have been, so...), he’ll have quite a lot of trade value to some contender who suddenly finds themselves in a rotation crisis. It happens every year to somebody, and having a spare Jaime Garcia sitting around puts one in a uniquely advantageous position.

So given that I consider Garcia a near-automatic pick up, we’re left looking at the other two line items missing from the budget which could potentially make up a rather large chunk of change.

If you believe the Cardinal roster, as currently constructed, is good enough to win in 2016, then the equation probably becomes a fair bit simpler. If, however, you, like me, feel the Redbirds really need to add one more core-level piece in the near term to help them move into the next age of contention, then this issue is a bit thornier.

Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss play very similar positions. Both are probably best in left field, can play right well enough (Moss probably moreso than Holliday at this point), and have a little first base ability as well. Moss looks like a terrible defender at first in his career, while Holliday has only begun playing the position within the last calendar year (and very rarely this season), so I wouldn’t count on him to be any great shakes over there.

Moss is 32 years old, closing in on 33. He will play at 33 for all of the 2017 regular season, and a decent chunk of the postseason. Holliday, meanwhile, is 36 right now, and 2017 will represent his age-37 season.

Moss is an average corner outfielder. Holliday, at this point in his career, has declined from his peak, when he would annually contribute a handful of runs in a positive direction in left, while never really looking like a great fielder. I don’t know how many runs exactly you’re giving up with Holliday in the field versus Moss, but it feels to me like probably about five, or half a win’s worth. Argue if you like; that’s strictly my impression.

Offensively, you have players going in wildly divergent directions, at least at the moment. Brandon Moss is currently going through a bona fide renaissance with the bat, putting up a batting line eerily similar to his 2012 campaign with Oakland, the season which established the legend of Brandon Moss as a thing. (Well, that and being a great interview.) In 2012, Moss went to the plate 296 times. In those 296 plate appearances, he hit 21 home runs, scored 48 runs, drove in 52, walked 8.8% of the time, struck out 30.4% of the time, and posted a .306 ISO. This season, Moss has collected 312 total plate appearances, and hit 21 home runs, scored 50 runs, driven in 51, walked 9.0% of the time, struck out 30.1%, and posted a .308 ISO. A 40-point dip in BABIP this season compared to 2012 explains the difference in batting average and overall wRC+, but the non-lucky, non-noisy stats are remarkably similar. (The incidentals are similar, also, which I know don’t indicate much but it’s fun they’re all so close.)

Holliday, on the other hand, is currently carrying the worst wRC+ of his career since his rookie season, all the way back in 2004. He is being heavily penalised by a very low batting average on balls in play (.251), but there are also troubling aspects to his batted-ball profile to worry over. He’s upped his power production compared to last season, but his walk rate has fallen dramatically, and he’s putting the ball on the ground a troubling amount.

The production, both offensively and defensively, heavily favours Moss, pretty much any way you slice it. There is one area, however, where Moss is a much worse bet, and that’s in the area of the contract.

Brandon Moss has intriguingly moved from, “just finish out his deal,” at the beginning of the year to, “really good qualifying offer candidate,” and then all the way to, “sign him to a multi-year contract, like, yesterday,” over the course of the season. And that, honestly, is a bit of a problem.

The ideal solution to the Brandon Moss situation, from the standpoint of the club, would probably be to simply extend the qualifying offer, and hope he accepts. If not, hey! Free draft pick! (Well, probably. The new CBA throws an additional wrench into all this.) If he does, hey! One-year deal on a slugger! Either way, good stuff.

The problem, though, is that Brandon Moss, at 33 years old, is currently in line for probably the one and only big payday of his career. Now, that’s not to say Moss has not made himself a very nice living playing baseball; over the last three years of his career he’s made close to $19 million. But in an age where $20 million a year is no longer looked at askance, Brandon Moss really hasn’t cashed in. Dingers get paid, usually. Moss hits dingers. He will be 33, has likely one shot at a longish-term deal, and this is it.

In other words, Brandon Moss is not accepting your qualifying offer.

It also probably means a two-year-with-an-option might not be all that realistic, either. Maybe that would work, if the AAV was robust, but it’s tough to say. In all likelihood — particularly considering the utterly dire state of this year’s free agent class — it will take at least three years to sign Brandon Moss, and north of $15 million annually. Considering that only requires him to be about a two win player each year to break even, that doesn’t sound terrible.

But, here’s the other thing: you do, in fact, already have Matt Holliday in hand, if you want him. And it’s only a one year deal, the holy grail of risk-averse New Baseball types. Holliday would need to be worth 2-2.5 wins next year to make the salary worth it; even if he falls a little short, the Cardinals have some other players they can rotate through his position to help out with the production.

As it stands now, without either Holliday or Moss on the roster next year, the Cardinals still have a starting right fielder; even with his recent struggles, Stephen Piscotty looks like a solidly above-average regular and a key piece of the future. They have two potential starting center fielders, in Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk; the less-charitable might say having two starting center fielders means you actually have zero starting center fielders, but that seems overly negative. However, there’s some truth to that. Tommy Pham cannot be counted on to play every day at this point; he’s proven again this season his body is simply too fragile to hold up to the full season grind. It’s a shame, too; even with a slightly bizarre 33% strikeout rate, he’s still carrying a 133 wRC+ for the season. And Randal Grichuk? Look, we know three things about Randal Grichuk for sure: one, he has hairy forearms. Two, he’s an incredible athlete. And three, he inspires his manager to say truly idiotic, nonsensical things on a pretty regular basis. Beyond that...we just can’t be sure.

If neither Holliday nor Moss are brought back, then you’ll likely begin the season with one of Pham or Grichuk in center, the other starting in left field, and Stephen Piscotty in right. That seems incredibly risky. Harrison Bader may be on the way relatively soon, but he’s going to have the same kinds of plate approach problems we’ve seen from Grichuk in the majors, methinks, so maybe don’t label him a saviour just yet. Hazelbaker will still be around, I suppose, but that just means you have a pretty decent fifth outfielder on the roster.

Barring some other outside acquisition, it would seem to me the organisation needs either Matt Holliday or Brandon Moss on the roster next season. Holliday is almost certainly the worse player at this point, but he’s also relatively affordable, and only locks you in to a player for one years. Moss, on the other hand, might just slug 75+ homers over the next three seasons, but you’ll almost certainly have to commit those three years up front, and at a fairly dear price.

Moss seems to me like the sort of player who really would leave a little money on the table to be in a situation he likes, but he’s not going to accept the QO or sign a well-below-market deal just because it seems like a good fit here. That being said, if he could be had for, say, three years and $51 million — same AAV as Holliday, only a longer commitment -- would you do that instead of just bringing back the Lego Man? Three and $54 is probably more realistic, honestly.

As I see it, you can pay for Moss at 33, 34, and 35, or Holliday at 37. Admittedly, Moss has a hip injury already on his resume that might scare one a little bit extra, but if I offered you the chance to purchase Holliday’s age 33-35 seasons with a three year commitment or his age 37 season with one, which would you do?

For my money, I think it’s becoming more and more clear that Brandon Moss is an almost ideal fit for this Cardinal roster in the near- to medium-term. Within three years, you would hope the organisation can develop a new long-term solution for left field, or pick one up somewhere in the same way they did Holliday seven years ago. I don’t think bringing Moss back all by itself is enough; there’s some dead wood and some opportunities on the roster for next season even without bringing in someone from outside the org. But if I had my druthers, I would push very hard to move some players, clear some payroll, and try to convert organisational depth into one more core-level player.

But in the meantime, it’s going to be fascinating to see how the Redbirds handle this upcoming decision, especially now that Holliday has undergone thumb surgery in a bid to get back earlier than he might have otherwise, taking on more risk, not to mention pain and suffering, to try and help out the team. It’s hard not to want a guy like that around, even if you aren’t sure just how much he’s contributing when he is on the field. But if they want to make the 2017 Cardinals better than the 2016 Cardinals, it’s hard to see any way to retain both Brandon Moss and Matt Holliday. And considering how much their venn diagram circles overlap, it seems like one may very well have to go.

So which player would you prefer? Holliday for one year at a price we already know? Or Moss for three — maybe even with an option for a fourth, the way contracts are heading — at a salary that will probably be a little higher than Matt’s?

It’s a tough question, but I think I’m leaning Moss at this point. And maybe more than just leaning.