The love affair between Matt Holliday(notes) and St. Louis is going to take, oh, all of 10 seconds to blossom. The fit couldn't be any better, and if ever the Cardinals wanted to show their followers – and free-agent-to-be manager Tony La Russa – their commitment to now, they did so with aplomb.
Holliday is the outfielder they coveted, the protection for Albert Pujols(notes) they needed and the latest big name to travel the Oakland-St. Louis pipeline. First was Mark McGwire in 1997. Advantage: Cardinals. Next was Mark Mulder(notes) in 2004. Advantage: A's. And now goes Holliday, for top prospect Brett Wallace(notes) and a pair of other kids, and to whom the advantage goes depends strictly upon how deep into October the Cardinals proceed – if they proceed at all.
One thing is for certain: Holliday will adore St. Louis. In Oakland, not only was he surrounded by losing but he spent his days in a cavernous stadium with far more seats empty than full. The scene chafed at his morale. St. Louis' embrace will be long and strong, like an airport hug that they hope turns into something permanent.
Such a prospect is grim, of course, given Holliday's impending free agency and St. Louis' reticence to deal with his agent, Scott Boras – both tough-to-navigate potholes. Which illustrates the mindset of the Cardinals' bright general manager, John Mozeliak: Forget the consequences, forget the lack of guarantees, forget the potential flak.
He wants to win.
So intoxicating is the scent of the postseason. The Cardinals watched Chicago and Houston shave their lead in the National League Central to 1½ games. They saw more and more teams resist playing patty cake with Pujols, even if it meant putting him on base. They made the move that reinforces their alpha-dog status in the division, even though it cost six controlling years of Wallace, a lumpy-bodied on-base machine.
He is the Moneyball archetype, and if Oakland's gambit to contend this year with Holliday its centerpiece was going to fail, the A's wanted something of substance in return. They could have offered him arbitration – Holliday's salary would jump from $13.5 million to $16 million or so – in hopes that he signed a multiyear deal elsewhere and sent two compensatory draft picks their way. Better the sure thing.
For St. Louis, the danger isn't nearly as acute. The Cardinals can afford a $16 million salary, especially with the contracts of Troy Glaus(notes) ($11.25 million) and Khalil Greene(notes) ($6.5 million) set to expire. They're happy to accept the draft picks, too. And should the free-agent market deflate, as it did last winter, perhaps sticking long term with the Cardinals would work as well.
Each side gets a two-month trial to feel one another out. Holliday already knows Cardinals utility man Skip Schumaker(notes), with whom he trained this offseason under the tutelage of McGwire. La Russa, too, is an acquaintance from the 2007 All-Star Game and the yarns spun by McGwire.
Holliday certainly won't have the impact McGwire did on St. Louis, where in his first full season Big Mac hit 70 home runs, captivated a country and ended up with a highway named after him. The St. Louis apologists still come out in full force for McGwire, tossing aside his steroid use like it's some extraneous detail instead of the defining piece of his legacy.
The city's love of the Cardinals is unadulterated, and so they will shrug off Holliday's miserable start – "This is the most I've struggled in the big leagues," he admitted – and focus on his resurgence. In eight games since the All-Star break, he has three home runs and 11 RBIs. He hit his first opposite-field home run of the year and surely won't mind playing in Busch Stadium, where he hits .385 and slugs .872.
Granted, some of those numbers came off miserable Cardinals pitching. This year, their arms are a strength and their bats worrisome. Between Holliday and Mozeliak's trade for Mark DeRosa(notes), the Cardinals have fortified their lineup enough that it may well be an asset.
And so the trade shifts seismically not just the Central but the whole NL landscape. Los Angeles remains the team to beat, with Philadelphia not far behind – and if either ponies up for Roy Halladay(notes), the favorite is unequivocal. Yet there lurk the Cardinals, more dangerous than they've been since parlaying an 83-win season into a 2006 World Series ring, with Pujols and DeRosa and Ryan Ludwick(notes) and Adam Wainwright(notes) and Joel Pineiro(notes) and the new guy, his leg kick back in place and his power stroke reporting for duty.
"Honestly," Holliday said two weeks ago, "I'm just looking forward to something really springboarding me to a great second half – and the rest of my career."
On Friday, he got it.