Holliday to re-sign with Cardinals

Free-agent outfielder Matt Holliday(notes) will continue his career in St. Louis.

The Cardinals announced that Holliday agreed to a seven-year, $120 million deal that includes a no-trade clause on Tuesday to hit behind Albert Pujols(notes) and play left field for the defending NL Central champion Cardinals.

Widely regarded as the top available free agent and pegged No. 1 in Yahoo! Sports’ rankings, Holliday, who turns 30 on Jan. 15, is among the best pure hitters in baseball. His batting average has been over .300 for five consecutive years, and his patience, power and defensive prowess in left field separated him from the other top free-agent hitter, outfielder Jason Bay(notes).

Matt Holliday batted a .313 average with 24 home runs last year for the Cardinals and Athletics.
(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Last November, Colorado – the team that drafted Holliday – traded him to Oakland after he turned down a four-year, $72 million contract extension. By midseason, Holliday looked as though he’d recoup barely half that on the market, as his numbers floundered along with the A’s fortunes. A deadline deal that sent Holliday to St. Louis revitalized him – and propelled him back into the elite area that allowed his agent, Scott Boras, to net the biggest payday this offseason.

Holliday thrived following his July 23 trade to the Cardinals, hitting .353 with a 1.023 OPS in the cleanup spot behind National League MVP Albert Pujols. While Pujols wasn’t as effective with Holliday in a St. Louis uniform – his OPS before the deal was 1.161, after it 1.018 – he obliquely pointed to Holliday’s return as a sign of the Cardinals’ dedication as he approaches free agency in 2011. Had he signed somewhere else – Boras said the market was hearty, though appearances suggested otherwise – Holliday would have worn his fourth different uniform in 13 months.

They did their part. Now comes the difficulty for St. Louis: figuring out how to squeeze an expected $30 million a year for Pujols along with Holliday’s contract and somehow end up with a payroll in the $100 million range. It’s why, ultimately, Holliday’s return to St. Louis is something of a shock. Even though he fit in every fashion – from his personality to his work ethic to his Midwestern roots – the money was always assumed an immovable road block.

Cardinals GM John Mozeliak and owner Bill DeWitt found enough leeway to suit their sensibilities, and now the Cardinals can rest knowing their cleanup spot is filled and Pujols likely is satisfied. It also helps that Holliday will reunite with Mark McGwire, the great slugger and his personal hitting guru, who returns from a self-imposed exile this year to become Cardinals hitting coach.

It was McGwire who four years ago suggested Holliday employ a leg kick in his swing. That season, he jumped from 19 home runs to 34, and the next year Holliday hit 37 home runs, drove in 137 runs, finished second in MVP balloting and led Colorado to its first World Series.

He returned to the playoffs this year, but the Cardinals bombed out in three games against the Dodgers. Most memorable was how Game 2 ended: with a fly ball conking Holliday in his nether regions and Los Angeles celebrating an improbable victory. It was perhaps the worst way possible to head into an offseason.

One that got a lot better Tuesday.

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Updated Tuesday, Jan 5, 2010