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The problem with the Greg Holland contract

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It’s not the money, exactly. It’s what the money means for how he’ll be used.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Yikes.

Just after the 2018 regular season began, the Cardinals signed reliever Greg Holland to a one-year, $14 million contract. It has become clear, based on subsequent reporting, that the decision essentially amounted to the front office giving in to pressure from Mike Matheny and signing a proverbial “Proven Closer” once Holland’s price dropped far enough. Keep this point in mind, as it will become important later.

So far (and to be fair, it hasn’t been very far yet) Holland’s time with the Cardinals has been an abject disaster. You’ve all seen it, but here’s one exemplary stat: by Win Probability Added, the only reliever whose performance has hurt his team more than Holland’s innings have hurt the Cardinals this season is Fernando Rodney (now a Minnesota Twin). He’s probably not going to keep being this bad — it’s pretty rare that somebody is actually this bad. But as A.E. Schaefer wrote yesterday, Holland looks suspiciously like a guy who is just not much good now.

With all that out of the way, I have a few personal observations:

(1) This kind of outcome for Holland was always possible. We’re looking at what, a 10th or 20th percentile kind of outcome for him, here? He was at least capable most of last year, and at times quite good, but now it seems he’s not (at least not right now). This stuff happens with relievers (which is the a reason to stay away from paying relievers this kind of money, which is a good general rule, but see point 3), and I’m not too sure “somebody should have seen this coming” is exactly the right reaction. Forecasting player performance is incredibly imprecise — unless a team swears off large contracts entirely, some of those large contracts will inevitably go badly.

(2) I know a lot of smart people who hated it from the start, but just for disclosure’s sake, I was basically neutral on this signing from day one. It seemed like an expensive one-year gamble on a guy with a solid chance of being good enough to close games. Whoops, apparently!

(3) I, again, know smart people who disagree, but I don’t think burning $14 million in a bonfire here (if that’s how Holland’s deal ends up) is actually that big a negative for anybody but the Cardinals’ owners.

That last point is the one that really demands elaboration. One for-good-or-for-ill side effect of the Moneyball-ization of baseball journalism (at least this bloggy corner of it) is a tendency for many fans to adopt a front-office-ish view of their favorite teams, rather than a pure fan view. Under this view, one of the worst sins is the sin of inefficiency: spending some of the team’s finite budget in a way less productive than other available ways.* And it’s hard to spend less efficiently than by blowing $14 million on a reliever who (maybe) turns out to be terrible, right?

*And it makes sense for fans to do that! I’m not saying otherwise. I want the Cardinals to win every year, so of course I want them to make the best possible use of their spending.

But I think in this case, the context matters a lot: Holland signed literally after the season had begun. Trades that would have added substantial salary to the 2018 Cardinals had been discussed and, other than the Marcell Ozuna trade, either rejected or possibly tabled until midsummer. The major free agents, other than Holland, were already signed. The roster was set, and it was set to cost about $145.5 million as of Opening Day — about $2.5 million less than the 2017 Opening Day payroll.

That would have been, in a quiet way, outrageous. Not in a moral way, at least not to me; I think the question of how much revenue a MLB franchise “ought” to turn back into MLB-level payroll is, in all but the most extreme cases, pretty boring. To me, it would have been outrageous just in terms of the front office willfully squandering resources. They obviously had room for (much) more than a $145.5 million Opening Day payroll. Not spending more than that on the team — leaving substantial budget room sitting there unused — is simply wasteful.

It would have been better to spend $14 million on something else, earlier in the offseason. But at the point where the season has officially started, and none of the better options materialized, and Holland is still sitting there and your manager is saying pretty please can I have it I’ll feed it and walk it and I’ll never let it on the couch... Holland wasn’t the best way to spend unused payroll, but he was certainly a way. By the time he signed, he was basically the only way. And it didn’t have to turn out this (apparently) badly, though it’s too bad that it (apparently) has.

The huge mitigating factor here, for me, is that it’s just a one-year deal. The Cardinals still have room below the luxury tax threshold to take on half of a $20M superstar’s 2018 salary in a midseason trade. Hell, they have room for two of those. Holland’s deal won’t (or absolutely shouldn’t) stop them from making further moves deemed necessary this year.

Nor do I see how it would affect future moves. There’s a school of thought that says unspent budget might get rolled over — like it all just goes in a piggybank with a picture of Bryce Harper taped to it — but I’ve always been skeptical of that. A (say) Harper decision is based on a decade-plus forecast of return on a $400 million or so investment. It’s awfully hard for me to see how spending/losing $14M in 2018 acts as a tipping point one way or another in a decision like that.

Still, I’m pretty worried about how this is going to play out. They won’t just cut him — he’s been too good too recently for that. Nor, it seems, will they ask him to go back to the minors for a while; he’d have to accept, and with free agency looming for him again, it’s hard to believe he’d accept something so drastic. Greg Holland will, while healthy, remain on the Cardinals roster for the foreseeable future.

And it’s what happens in that future that really worries me. Remember when I told you to hold on to the fact that Holland’s signing seems to have come at the behest of Matheny? That’s a bad fact, and I don’t mean bad in the sense of “the manager shouldn’t have that kind of roster pull to begin with.” It’s bad because Matheny got his guy. He thinks Proven Closers are a thing. He wanted one so badly that asked for one. Now he has one.

Matheny has, despite scant-to-nonexistent evidence that Holland is ready for it, already rushed him into The Closer Role. He bombed, and will be on parole again for a while. But I wasn’t really joking when I wrote this in Friday’s recap:

The “Greg Holland reclaims the closer role” clock has been reset to two consecutive scoreless appearances. Watch this space for updates.

Holland will, I suppose, have to “earn” The Closer Role again. But based on how easily he “earned” it the first time — based on how badly Matheny wanted this specific guy in that specific job — based, even, on the fact that Matheny must feel like he’s got some organizational capital on the line, here, with how much of the bosses’ money he just spent — how hard do you really think it’ll be for Holland to get the job back? And how about the time after that, and the time after that? Holland has a big name, a big contract, and a manager who seems to believe that those things are the marker of big-time ability. Even without actual big-time ability, those things can go a long way in a business defined by “go get ‘em tomorrow.”

The problem with Greg Holland’s contract isn’t the money. It’s what Mike Matheny seems to think the money means.