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A look back at the Matt Holliday trade

A little over seven years ago, the Cardinals acquired a future cornerstone in what was initially a stretch-run rental. With proper hindsight, how does the initial move look?

MLB: Miami Marlins at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2016 trade deadline came and went, some familiar rumblings from some segments of St. Louis Cardinals fans re-emerged. The popular sentiment goes something along these lines: GM John Mozeliak is too passive at the deadline. Instead of making seismic, landscape-changing moves, he settles instead on trading so-so minor league prospects for short-to-medium term bullpen help or bench players.

The last two years brought several trades which fit this description: not only Sunday’s trade of Charlie Tilson for Zach Duke, but last year’s acquisitions of Jonathan Broxton, Steve Cishek, and Brandon Moss for Malik Collymore, Kyle Barraclough, and Rob Kaminsky.

Of course, this is also to ignore the previous seven John Mozeliak trade deadlines, during which several major moves have occurred. Trading Allen Craig, coming off a second straight season in which he had received MVP votes, and Joe Kelly, a cost-controlled swingman who had started four games in the previous postseason, for a 35 year-old veteran in John Lackey was hardly a minor move. Nor was trading recent top prospect Colby Rasmus, as unpopular a move at the time as I can remember among fans but undeniably a substantial move regardless.

And of course, there was the 2009 blockbuster that brought Matt Holliday to St. Louis from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Clayton Mortensen, Shane Peterson, and Brett Wallace.

At the time, it was a somewhat controversial trade: it undeniably made the Cardinals, clinging to a 1 1/2 game lead over the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros, a better team for the remainder of the 2009 season, but the cost was tremendous: Wallace was the #40 prospect in baseball per Baseball America, Mortensen was regarded as the organization’s 6th best prospect by Derrick Goold, and Peterson was a second-round pick just one year before.

And while Matt Holliday, 29, had established himself since 2006 as a terrific MLB hitter, nearly winning an MVP award in 2007 with the Colorado Rockies and being named an All-Star three times, he was scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season. It was a purely short-term move.

Since that day, public consensus about the Holliday trade has been overwhelmingly positive. Centerpiece Brett Wallace, considered primarily a hitting prospect in the first place, has been slightly below average as a hitter and due to his lack of defensive value, has never been able to stick in a Major League lineup (oh, and he was traded the next off-season for not-the-Nationals-one outfielder Michael Taylor).

Additionally, Clayton Mortensen had some sub-par cups of coffee with Oakland before being designated for assignment. And Shane Peterson didn’t reach double-digit MLB plate appearances until 2015, when he finally got a chance at material playing time with the Milwaukee Brewers, where he was replacement level-ish.

Meanwhile, Matt Holliday signed an extension and remained productive and is a valuable member of the St. Louis community. And even if his tenure as a Cardinal ends in a few months, the Matt Holliday trade will be remembered fondly.

But much of the warm feelings about the trade seems to be contingent upon Holliday’s extension with the Cardinals, signed on January 5, 2010. By most accounts, Matt Holliday’s continued tenure with the team was not a foregone conclusion and while his contract has worked out relatively well for the Cardinals, the contract was more or less commensurate with market rates. Jayson Werth, slightly worse and a year older but with an additional year of market inflation to his benefit, made $6 million more over a seven-year deal (and his contract, unlike Holliday’s is backloaded; I’ll spare you a boring time value of money calculation but I can assure you that a backloaded contract is to the benefit of the team and not the player).

By and large, I view Holliday’s production from 2010 onward as independent of his two-plus months with the Cardinals in 2009, though there is an argument to be made otherwise. Players such as Mark McGwire and Scott Rolen, acquired in late July on expiring contracts and then signed to extensions by the club, were ballyhooed for taking “hometown discounts”, a talking point always worth advertising because it gives fans a sense that they are not merely spectators but that they make a genuine impact on the front office operations of their favorite team. It does no harm, even if it has little-to-no basis in reality.

But it is not totally unreasonable to believe that giving a player a trial period does give teams an inside track of sorts for a long-term extension. There is value in the security of knowing that you will not absolutely despise where you sign; an extra few million dollars is a few million dollars, though when you are assured of a few hundred million dollars regardless, the safer option is still extraordinarily lucrative.

But just for the sake of analysis, I am going to assume that the savings on the Holliday extension derived from the 2009 trade is relatively negligible. So this means looking at two months. Granted, Matt Holliday had two excellent months to close out 2009, but it is two months nonetheless.

In 63 regular season games with the Cardinals, Matt Holliday hit 13 home runs, produced a 169 OPS+ which he would never equal in a full season before or since, and was worth 2.3 wins above replacement. Prorated to an entire year, this would be 5.8 WAR, which is terrific. And Holliday was replacing a sub-replacement level Chris Duncan, so 2.3 WAR may undersell the upgrade that he was, but since I’m also not giving consideration to Holliday’s $13.5 million salary in 2009, I don’t feel too bad using 2.3 as a guesstimate.

The Cardinals won the 2009 NL Central, and Holliday was terrific down the stretch, but they did win the division by 7 1/2 games. So did they really need Holliday? Even if you round down Holliday’s WAR total and reduce the team’s wins from 91 to 88 (you could go down further if you wanted, for what it’s worth), the Cardinals still win the division, they still face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, and they still probably get eliminated. Though the exact details would differ.

Now, the players the Cardinals dealt never turned out to be great, but they did have a lot of team control associated with them. So there’s that. But unless Cardinals development would have made a positive difference that Athletics development would not have, none of this team control would have mattered.

The Cardinals had some close playoff calls, in 2011, 2012, 2014, and (when it came to winning the division) 2015. But so little became of Wallace and Co. that, if anything, their presence may have stymied the playoff chances of the Cardinals.

In 2011, if the response to David Freese’s injury was not the competent Daniel Descalso but rather Brett Wallace, who came into the majors at first base but was a minor league third baseman (Tony LaRussa played Allen Craig in center field and Albert Pujols played some third base in 2011; I don’t consider Wallace at third an enormous stretch), who knows how he produces? And this is all assuming that the trade did not, in fact, give the Cardinals a leg up in securing Matt Holliday-level production in 2011.

In the end, the Matt Holliday trade was a good trade. It wasn’t an all-time great trade, because it resulted in just two-plus months of ultimately unnecessary production. But it made the team better, and at little-to-no cost to future teams. And when evaluating any deadline deal, this is important to keep in mind. It is unlikely that Brandon Moss or Zach Duke will have their numbers retired at Busch Stadium, but if they can produce something, and if history proves Rob Kaminsky and Charlie Tilson redundant pieces to the Cardinals puzzle, the trades were still worthwhile.