Tag Archive | "Matt Holliday"

Cardinals Winter Warm Up Progressive Blog, Day 3

The third and final day of the Cardinals Care Winter Warm Up is about to begin shortly, and in suit is the I-70 Progressive Blog, chronicling the media sessions for players, management and event announcements at the WWU.

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As has been the previous two days, content will be available on four platorms: via Twitter (@I70Baseball & @CheapSeatFan), Instagram (CheapSeatFan), Facebook at I70 Baseball and of course here on the site.

New updates will be provided periodically between player appearances. Scheduled to appear today are Matt Holliday, Michael Wacha, Mike Matheny, Peter Bourjos, Zach Petrick, Sam Freeman and John Mabry

 

Matt Holliday—10:06

Regarding his offseason workout, he spent the winter with Trevor Rosenthal working on strength training, which consisted of sled pushing, tire flipping and even fireman carries, which even saw the Trevor pick him up over his shoulder for a 20 meter carry. Regarding Rosenthal’s preparation, “It’s been fun to watch his discipline and effort. He wants to be the best, and I admire that.”

As a noted opponent of performance enhancing drugs, the acquisition of Jhonny Peralta, brought up a flurry of interest. In regards to whether he had insight on the club’s interest before he was signed, he acknowledged he knew about it beforehand. While he declined to specify on the details of the convo, he is looking forward to seeing what he can do firsthand.  “Mo just called and said this is what we are going to do, it’s not like he asked me for permission or anything.”

Continuing on, Holliday clarifies “I am against PEDs and always will be. But I am also a forgiving person and he served his suspension. That’s the rules of the game and I’m happy to have him as a teammate.” He does not believe he needs to justify anything to Cardinal clubhouse about the suspension. “He had his suspension, served it and his teammates in Detroit welcomed him back. If does and he wants to address it, that’s his prerogative. But it’s nothing we expect.”

Despite the exit of Carlos Beltran, he feels no new pressure of leadership this season, citing the depth of veterans with the club. “Leadership has been part of my role since I got here. Obviously, Carlos was a big part of our leadership and David (Freese) as well, but we’ve got Yadi, Adam and myself and lot of guys that have been around the organization and team for a while.

On the addition of Peter Bourjos and his impact on the dynamic of the club’s offense, he feels it is yet to be determined how his elements fit into the lineup. Yet he cautions that discounting Jon Jay would be an error. “I think Jon Jay’s ability to be a really good player in this league is being a big overlooked. I think Peter and Jon will compete for at-bats.”

About working with the younger Cardinals, he is especially excited to work with the young outfielders within the system. “I’m excited to work with (Grichuk), Peter and Oscar Taveras. So it will be good to see those guys and watch to see how they handle things.”

Sam Freeman—11:33

On the adjustment between his 2012 and 2013 stints with the team: “Just mentally. When I came up I knew what I needed to do, and I just needed to continue to execute. The same thing that gets outs in Memphis it ultimately works up here too.

Michael Wacha—11:38

He was reserved on his personal goals for the season, but did reveal he began throwing around the top of the year and while he doesn’t anticipate any additions to his repertoire, focusing on location consistency. “I feel if I can do that, spot everything up and changing speeds everything will be pretty good.”

On managing the expectations that he set late last season, he is measured in his approach and attempting to leave it within himself. “There’s going to be some high expectations that are put on me, but you can’t really pay much attention to that. I have some high expectations for myself as well that I try to live up to, and if I can do those things it will be pretty good. Even going back to the postseason, the job is to try not to do too much.”

About his role on the pitching staff and the competition to make the starting rotation, he does not assume anything, regardless of how last year finished. “My mindset is to go into Spring Training to try and win a job. It’s going to be a competition, but it’s also going to be a fun competition because they are my teammates.”

Mike Matheny—11:56

(More on Matheny’s vision for the organization in a piece to come)

On the ending to the previous year, he expressed that it was more difficult to move on from than he could have anticipated. “I was surprised how long it took me to move past the World Series and reflect on the rest of the year.”

Regarding the impact of instant replay on this year’s season, he approves on the level that has been settled upon and sees it has taking the game in a fresh direction. “I think that everybody understands that with the level of technology we have right now that we need to do something moving forward. Is there a perfect system? No. But is this a step in the right direction, yes.”

Continuing on, he sees the impact of replay as a common sense portion of quality control on the game. “To not use the technology that everybody else in the stadium can use is a mistake. So now trying to put a system into place is for the best of the game and the integrity of it.”

He characterizes the competition for the starting rotation as “fierce” and wants for everyone to show up with the mindset that they have to show up to earn their jobs. “That is something that we have been very blessed to have around here, is that even our best players show up with the mentality that they have to earn their jobs.”

Matheny characterizes that he likes for pitchers to prepare as starters, so that they can develop their entire repertoire, because backing a pitcher off is much easier than ramping them up from reliever to starter. “The whole concept that ‘I’m going to compete, but it’s about the team’ is important, and if we are going to be consistent and win, we have to buy into that.”

While Trevor Rosenthal will absolutely be in the ninth inning role this year, a possibility of him returning to the rotation later is not ruled out. “Trevor is very important right now, and solidifying the back end of the bullpen is crucial.”

While the rotation candidates get much of the shine, Matheny lauded the ability of the bullpen and its success at the end of last year as well. “I think that at the end of the season, not too many people wanted to see the back of our bullpen.” He cautions that the health of Jason Motte and whichever pitchers fall outside of the starting rotation will impact the ability to duplicate that success again.

He expects for Jaime Garcia to arrive and be on the same pace as the rest of the starters.

Despite Carlos Beltran being gone and Peter Bourjos, Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong being in the fold and introducing a new tool set to the lineup; he cannot predict yet what the lineup would be and how exactly he plans to utilize the skills in the everyday mix.

He sees the secret strength of the organization as the ability for the team to integrate all levels of its operation seamlessly, via a shared trust for each. “We work very well together, seeing what the ideal situation would be and then looking at the market to see what’s available. While keeping with the long-term vision of the organization to be able to grow within and be able to promote guys from inside the organization, which is extremely rare but I think you see an organization now where each group trusts each other.”

Regarding his involvement in the push to reform rules around home plate collisions, he is encouraged by the steps that the MLB is taking. “I think there has been so much information we have gained from the other sports about the long-term damage to athletes, and I think we would be crazy to not take that information and move it forward.”

He feels that baseball is taking a proactive, instead of reactive, stance on the collateral damages of player collisions. “The way the system is set up, it is asking for major trouble,” he expressed, yet says the culture of the players approach has to shift also. “I guarantee that football and hockey would do anything to reverse these traumatic brain injuries to players, and I think baseball took a bold look forward for the health of the game and the health of the players.”

Peter Bourjos—12:25

He expressed that Albert Pujols reached out to him and gave a major endorsement to him regarding St. Louis when he was traded. “He called me the day that I got traded and was really happy for me. He couldn’t say enough things about playing in St. Louis in front of the fans.” Continuing on, he said that he was excited to be traded here, citing the team’s recent success as the major reason why.

He did not feel that he would be back in Anaheim entering the offseason, and that he anticipated a trade of some sort.

About his full-speed approach in the outfield, he doesn’t see him recent injuries as a result of that. “I pulled my hamstring in the 14th inning on a cold night in Oakland, then returned and got hit on the wrist by a baseball.” He sees last year as a ‘fluke’, and that it doesn’t tell an accurate story of his durability.

About a potential timeshare in centerfield, he is open to it and doesn’t have an expectation but to contribute.

Regarding the National League and the playing time options it provides, he sees it as a way to make a more regular impact in the game, even if he isn’t starting that day. “It’s a different game and is managed differently. “You may pinch hit or pinch run in the ninth, where you could be in the game by the fifth inning in the National League if you don’t start.”

He anticipates having to change his approach at the plate, even if he is at the bottom of the lineup due to taking walks in front of the pitcher spot and getting more balls to hit there.

He sees his goal level of stolen bases as in the 30-40 stolen base level, considering he gets the at-bats to do so.

 

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Cardinals Create Own Misfortune In Game One

In many regards, the Cardinals have been a max effort team throughout their playoff run. From a string of uncanny, timely pitching performances, to just the right hits to get by, they have found a seamless way to survive. However, on Wednesday night in Boston, those seams popped and the Cardinal chances quickly followed suit.

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There is not a postseason series that is devoid of “the moment”. Whether it be a critical defensive play, pitch placement or a hit find the right opening in the field, it is the turn of these plays that more often than not decides the turn of a series. Murphy’s Law was firmly rooted against the Cardinals in each and every one of these instances from onset of the Game One of the World Series, and they paid an instant price. Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester owned the corners in the top of the first inning, while Adam Wainwright uncharacteristically missed them. Boston made the best of the mini-slump from the Cardinal Ace, and the substandard Cardinal defense made sure they stuck.

The most notable play of the night will remain the first of this series of unfortunate events, where shortstop Pete Kozma’s moves without out the ball were executed more flawlessly than his ones with it. On a quick attempt at an inning-salvaging double play was initiated by Matt Carpenter, Kozma uncharacteristically missed the exchange at the base, a play that had its biggest impact to come after its completion. After the play was overturned by a rare umpire tribunal, it was made that even the runner coming into second was safe after Kozma never had control of the ball to record an out.

As such things always seem to unfold; this error was followed immediately by a definitive hit in the game by first baseman Mike Napoli in the next at-bat. He cleared the bases on a hanging Wainwright delivery and cleared the bases, putting the Red Sox ahead permanently.

Yet that moment was far from the only miscue of the day for the sloppy Cardinal defense. An inning that began with a miscue between Wainwright and Yadier Molina on a routine infield pop fly, it was Kozma’s second error in as many innings which blew things open yet again, which led the second time the bases were loaded in the young game. On the following play, Dustin Pedroia chopped a routine ball within range of both Kozma and David Freese at third, yet got past both and drove in the fourth run of the game, as well as kept the base loaded and the game alive.

Yet, it was the next at-bat that was the most ironic of the game, and could have the most resonating impact of the game. David Ortiz came within inches of his second grand slam of the postseason if not for a world-beating grab by Carlos Beltran at the right field fence. But in the course of making the grab, Beltran banged is open rib cage on the outfield wall, an outcome that forced him from the game at the close of the inning. While Beltran’s hospital returns were X-Rays and cat scans which showed no serious reasons for concern, in the same way that they benefitted from the injury to Hanley Ramirez in the NLCS, they could be forced to battle through for themselves now with a sore Beltran.

After this early string of misfortunes, the Cardinal momentum was sufficiently deadened. While they mounted a brief threat in the fifth inning, as well as broke up the team shutout bid in the ninth inning on a long Matt Holliday home run, their fate was long since decided, and largely by their own doing. The 8-1 loss gave the Red Sox a 1-0 lead in the series, an edge that has resulted in a win in the last 24 World Series contest.

The Cardinals have been a team that has played at best when performing in concert, as Game Six of the National League Championship Series displayed. Yesterday’s game was a study in what happens when that same display happens in the contrary. Boston did the three things well that win baseball games on Wednesday: pitched well, played well at home and capitalized on mistakes. For the Cardinals to return to St. Louis tomorrow night with the series under control, they must do their part to assure there are fewer chances for the Sox to make good on the latter scenario.

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Matt Holliday and Measuring the Moment

For all that can be said about Matt Holliday, one thing that can’t be taken from him is his flair for the moment. On Tuesday night, for the second time in this season’s playoff run, he delivered a decisive and momentum swinging blow for the Cardinals, and has once again delivered them to brink of moving to the next round.

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Yet when looking at his plain performance, it is easy to see why he receives some of the criticism he does. Despite being leaned on to be the main producer for the struggling Cardinal lineup, he has more often than not failed to live up to that billing. In the NLCS, he is hitting .125 and hadn’t had a hit in over 10 at-bats before his massive fourth inning home run against Ricky Nolasco, which drove in Matt Carpenter and was a resounding moment in reviving a Cardinal offense that seemed to be on the verge of an early hibernation for a second year in a row.

The motivation of this big statement was very familiar, because it was the same thing his Game 4 home run in Pittsburgh did just last week. With the Cardinals on the brink of elimination, he provided the support to make Michael Wacha’s masterful performance stand up, via a two-run seventh inning home run. And now, as a revived Cardinal team finds itself awakened and with three chances to advance itself to the World Series, the team’s fortunes have been pulled in place by the most incorrectly criticized player in recent Cardinal history.

The image of Holliday is tarnished by the shadows it stands in, as well as the image it is supported by. From day one, there was the idea that he was rental player, which cost the team too much to land (the now laughable expense of Brett Wallace and two other minor leaguers who never made it far). Yet in his first postseason, it was one dropped fly ball in Game four of the NLDS during the Cardinals last October trip to Los Angeles which remains the highlight of his first campaign in St. Louis. Much more than the .353 average he hit once coming over from Oakland which provided much needed non-Pujols created offense and helped the team win the NL Central by a runaway 7.5 games.

He was John Mozeliak’s first blockbuster acquisition, as well as his first big dollar contract dealt out. The purpose of Holliday’s acquisition was to be the second half of a potent heart of the lineup along with Pujols, but to also be security in case he was not able to be retained. Ultimately, the latter became reality, albeit after the Cardinals won a World Series in a season where Holliday put up a .296 average, All-Star effort. At this point Holliday replaced the then irreplaceable hitting third in the Cardinal lineup. But he also carried the tag of being the “highest paid player in Cardinal history”, which became more curse than reward in the court of public opinion. This was fueled by his pay grade was not deemed as necessary stroke of foresight, but rather being a prime reason why Pujols couldn’t stay, for financial reasons.

Holliday’s career thus far has been better than it has been bad. In St. Louis, his career numbers during the regular season have been the most consistent of any player on the team during his four-year tenure, averaging .306/23/90 split as a Cardinal. Despite the notion of not being “clutch”, he turned in a .390 average with runners in scoring position this season, which increased to .426 in same scenario, but with two outs.

Those numbers are a pretty fair regular read out of his “clutch” tendencies, as well as a showing of regular value.

However, the postseason struggles have happened and cannot be denied. A team needs its power conduit to be churning at the highest points of the year, and Holliday has let the club down in those scenarios over the past two years. In most situations, a season is not made by the moment, but the postseason is an exceptional time, and the same rules do not apply. While consistency is still not his ally this October, he has made amends in many regards by showing up when most needed. And that is not a presence that should be glazed over lightly, even if that has been the trend for many of his greatest contributions thus far.

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Déjà vu Threatens Cardinals All Over Again

Down 2-1, and faced with nothing elimination games ahead in their Divisional Series match up with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cardinals find themselves in a familiar place. But not the type of “they’ve been behind before” postseason rhetoric that has been tagged to the club so often recently, rather it directly correlates to the way their season ended last time around. While the pitching alignments get the buzz, it is the lineup that is once again failing the Cardinals.

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It has now been two full games since the Cardinals had a lead at any point versus Pittsburgh. Along the way, the Cardinals have been buried by the same type of timely hitting from the Pirates core that the Cardinal collective has been prided on. Pedro Alvarez, Russell Martin and Marlon Byrd have collaborated to drive in more runs (16) than the Cardinals have combined for as a club (11).

Basically, they are being beat at their own game. After a season where the Cardinals were the second most productive team offense, hitting for a .269 average, they have torpedoed to a .219 average through the first three games of the series. Carlos Beltran’s once again outstanding October effort aside, as well as solid showings from Yadier Molina and Matt Adams, the rest of the lineup has brutally underperformed. Highlighted by a 1 for 11 (.091) spin by Matt Carpenter, a 2 for 12 effort by Matt Holliday (.167) and a pair of 2 for 10 showings from Jon Jay and David Freese, the same type of large scale outage that sunk the team over the last three games of 2012 has made an untimely return.

There is a huge difference in the 2012 postseason Cardinals than any past incarnation however, and it is a simple see: it is not a deep team. Whereas in years past there were Allen Craig, Lance Berkman and Matt Carpenter among others to supply hits off the bench, there is no such presence of that sort this year. Look no further than the final two batters in yesterday’s game, Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso, who, respectively, hit .217 and .238 on the year. It’s a striking showing that their were no other bats available to take those opportunities, and proves resoundingly the depth the team lost when Craig was lost for what looks to be the season. The bottom line is simply, what starts is what has to produce, and the group failings to do so (a .192 average from the starting lineup over the past 18 innings) is creating a brutal case of déjà vu.

Over the past the last three games of last season’s National League Championship Series, the Cardinals mounted one run across three games, which unfolded in the same home, then road-road sequence. While the team is guaranteed to score more runs than last with yesterday’s output, there is still simply too much pressure put on the pitching staff to win games.

Game four sees a continuation of yesterday, with Michael Wacha going to the mound for his first postseason appearance of his career. While he has been effective against the Pirates, and is the best available option to start this game, even with his best efforts will be for nil if the team continues to leave runners on base

In a most poetic situation in how the year has unfolded, it is the young arms that have been leaned on to pitch in high leverage situations, and while the rookie staff as performed impeccably throughout the year, they still are young. The postseason is made for veterans to deliver, and for all of the strides the team took this season, it finds itself on the verge of ending in not only the same fashion, but at an earlier clip if it cannot work out the order of things by 5:00 this evening.

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Edward Mujica eerily similar to Ryan Franklin for St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2009 playoffs with a closer who barely reached 90 mph with his fastball after years of a closer who threw in the mid-to-upper 90s yet had a nearly perfect season before the Cardinals faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series.

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Ryan Franklin had replaced Jason Isringhausen when Izzy got hurt, or got too ineffective, late in the 2008 season and saved 38 games in 43 opportunities.

The situation at the back end of the Cardinals’ bullpen four years later is nearly exactly the same. The Cardinals lost their flame-throwing closer, Jason Motte, to elbow surgery during spring training and eventually gave the ninth-inning job to Edward Mujica late in April.

Mujica’s fastball tops out around 91 mph, but as was the case with Franklin, he has masterfully induced dozens upon dozens of groundballs on the way to 37 saves in 41 chances with nine games left in the regular season.

And the Cardinals are set up to again play the Dodgers in the National League Division Series if they hold on to win the NL Central over the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.

The last time the Cardinals and Dodgers met in the division series is when Franklin’s almost magical run came to an end and never returned.

Dodgers first baseman James Loney hit a line drive to left field in Game 2 that Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday dropped. Franklin then walked two hitters and gave up two singles, the final one to pinch hitter Mark Loretta to give the Dodgers a 3-2 win and a 2-0 lead in the series that ended in a sweep two days later.

That playoff series was the beginning of the end for Franklin, who had been an All-Star in 2009. He saved 27 games in 2010 but he blew four of his first five save opportunities in 2011 and did not make it to the end of June before the Cardinals released him.

Obviously, the Cardinals hope the matchup against the Dodgers ends a little differently this time around, but the lesson from 2009 is clear. Mujica has been terrific for the Cardinals so far this season, but he is not an overpowering pitcher and not a long-term answer for the team at the closer position.

Thankfully, the Cardinals have a more solid backup option this time than they did two season ago, even though it is the same person.

The Cardinals tried seven different pitchers in the ninth inning in 2011 before manager Tony La Russa settled on Motte in September. Motte saved nine games in the regular season, closed out the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers and the World Series against the Texas Rangers, but he had a total of three career saves before that season.

Motte now has a world championship ring and 54 career saves to his name, and manager Mike Matheny will likely give him every possible chance to take back the job when he returns healthy to spring training in 2014.

Until then, Mujica has a lot of work to do, and he has shown some weaknesses lately. After he converted 21 consecutive save chances to start the season and was a perfect 9-for-9 from July 19 through Aug. 26, Mujica has blown two of his four save chances in September and has given up 12 hits in his last 6.1 innings.

Mujica is one of the biggest reasons the Cardinals are in a solid position to make the playoffs, but the team will need more of his first-half performances than his September outings if it is going to beat the Dodgers this time around.

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St. Louis Cardinals better without designated hitter

The St. Louis Cardinals lost one a spot for one of their many sluggers Friday when they mercifully returned to Busch Stadium to face the Miami Marlins.  The loss of the designated hitter in their return to National League play might actually help the team.

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The Cardinals 6-5 Independence Day loss on Thursday to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim finished the worst two-week stretch of the Cardinals’ 2013 season.

They went 2-8 against nearly the entire American League West Division. The Texas Rangers swept the Cardinals at home, the Houston Astros split a two-game series in Houston, and the Cardinals lost two of three on the road to the Oakland A’s and the Angels.

The Cardinals had the designated hitter available for all of those games except the three against Texas since the rest were played in American League ballparks, but the Cardinals were actually worse with the extra hitter. They lost a key bat off the bench, and the DH created an unbalanced lineup that disrupted what had been the National League’s best team.

The Cardinals scored four or fewer runs in six of the recent 10 games against the American League teams, but the larger factor was how much the designated hitter disrupted the team’s lineup, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny still couldn’t get all of his hitters regular at-bats.

For much of the season, the pitcher’s spot appeared to be a roadblock that simply didn’t allow first baseman Matt Adams to play every day. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 260 pounds, Adams has the look of a designated hitter. He could walk up to the plate four times a day, hit a homerun, get a base hit and his team would get a win more often than not.

But that wasn’t how interleague play worked out this season. Adams went 7-for-30, including six starts, in those 10 games, but rightfielder Carlos Beltran, first baseman Allen Craig, third baseman David Freese or leftfielder Matt Holliday were often placed in the DH role while Adams played first.

Holliday had a pinched nerve in his neck during the series against the Angels, and Matheny surely wanted to give the other hitters half a day off while he could, but the disjointed lineup showed on the field as the Cardinals made seven errors in those 10 games, or nearly one-third of the 36 errors they have committed this season.

Plus, Matheny shuffled the batting order to try to fit in the extra bat. All of a sudden catcher Yadier Molina was a regular sight in the No. 2 spot and Holliday dropped to the No. 5 spot.

Second baseman Matt Carpenter was about the only hitter not moved from his regular spot atop the lineup, and he mashed during the 10-game stretch, hitting .340 with eight hits for extra bases and 10 runs batted in.

The Cardinals lineup returned to normal Friday outside of a day off for Beltran to rest. Centerfielder Jon Jay filled the No. 2 spot, and the team broke out for four runs in the first three innings to establish their lead for a 4-1 win.

The lineup felt comfortable again, and it will be even more so with Beltran as a regular presence near the top of the order. Yes, Matheny will still have to be creative to get Adams enough at-bats, but the Cardinals played 20 games above .500 with that problem. They were six games under .500 when American League rules allowed the team an extra hitter.

The Cardinals have enough good hitters to produce an American League lineup, but as a whole they are still a National League team. Perhaps they can get back to their dominating ways now that they’re back in their own league.

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The Great Matt Holliday Debate (with myself)

I have always been flummoxed by Matt Holliday.

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On one hand, there are the numbers. Those numbers tell me things like this: Holliday has compiled a park-adjusted OPS+ greater than 120 every season he has played since 2006. His average OPS+ of 137 is 12th among active players. In his 10-year career, Holliday has averaged 29 home runs, 109 RBI, 107 runs scored, and a .533 slugging average.

Statistical comparisons at Baseball-Reference list the following players as comparable to Holliday: Larry Walker, Lance Berkman, Fred Lynn, Bernie Williams, Hack Wilson. Pretty good company, no?

He has played over 150 games five times and is on pace to do it again – at age 33, when many players start to break down. But day in and day out, he’s out there, a reliable rock in the lineup for one of the better teams in baseball. Just this past Sunday night, he belted a grand slam in extra innings to help boost the Cardinals to a big win over Cincinnati.

When Albert Pujols left St. Louis after the 2011 World Championship season, the role of 3-hole hitter passed to Holliday. While he did not replicate Pujols’ numbers (and was not expected to), his usual numbers were right on target by season’s end. He was not out of place in that spot in the order.

In 2012, he hit the longest recorded home run at Busch Stadium III, a towering blast that sailed past the “Big Mac Land” sign into the second deck in left field. The bomb was estimated at 469 feet and was determined to be the fifth-longest home run hit by anyone the entire season. In August of that season, he got his 1,500 career hit.

The man has been consistently productive. In 2013, he is on pace for 24 homers, 90 RBI, 112 runs scored and a park-adjusted OPS+ of 119. Still an above-average hitter.

That’s Matt Holliday – on one hand.

On the other hand, Matt Holliday is, without a doubt, one of the most infuriating players I have ever watched in my entire life.

MattHollidayDodgerCatchRemember the fly ball to the, ahem, midsection in the 2009 Division Series against the Dodgers? That still image of the ball squirting free instead of being the game-clinching out that would have tied the series 1-1? Oh, I still get agitated thinking about that one. I know, I know. It was several batters later that the Dodgers actually won the game, but that hideous error opened the floodgates nonetheless.

How about the botched pop-up in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series? Or getting picked off third base later in that same game? Gah! There was a bright side to the pickoff incident – he exited the game and set the stage for Allen Craig’s heroics later in Game 6 and again in Game 7. To this day, I remain convinced that the Rangers win the World Series in St. Louis if Holliday had stayed in the game. So I can let that one go much easier than 2009.

In last season’s NLCS, Holliday was Public Enemy #1 in San Francisco. His takeout slide against Marco Scutaro energized the listless Giants and they rallied to win Game 2 of the NLCS at home (thanks in no small part to another fielding error by Holliday). By the way, it was Scutaro who hit the ball that Holliday butchered, leading to a bases-clearing double. Karma came around in a BIG way that day.

Heck, Holliday even booted his first chance in the field, as a rookie left fielder for the Rockies in 2004 (in St. Louis, ironically). Watching him in the field was reminiscent of another Rockies left fielder, Dante Bichette. He was a productive hitter, at home mostly, and a butcher in the field. Some Rockies fans referred to him as “Skates” Bichette because his footwork often resembled an uncoordinated roller skater. The nickname suited Holliday as well. Every fly ball was an adventure.

His swing has never been described as a thing of beauty, either. The contrast between Pujols and Holliday in the 2009-11 seasons was fascinating. After watching watched Pujols’ balanced, powerful stroke, with that beautiful follow-through, Holliday’s violent, twisting swing would almost looked like he was throwing the bat at the ball, hoping to make contact. And some of the at-bats he takes….good grief, are they ever horrible. How many times over the years does it seem as though Holliday comes to the plate with runners in scoring position and the Cardinals in need of a run, and he grounds into an inning-ending double play or tap weakly to the pitcher? So frustrating (but to be fair, probably no more frequently than with any other player).

Even his baserunning wasn’t immune. Although he was a quarterback in high school in Oklahoma, he often ran the bases like a linebacker lumbering after a runaway QB. Rockies fans will forever remember his game-winning slide to end the 2007 play-in game against the Padres. His faceplant in the Coors Field dirt left a nasty red raspberry on his chin (and became a running joke the following season, when he lampooned it in a team commercial). You can still find Padres fans who insist Holliday never touched the plate on his “slide.” It became part of Holliday’s legend: the man could hit, but as a fielder and runner, well, he was a heck of a hitter.

After Holliday hired Scott Boras as his agent, it became apparent that the penny-pinching ownership of the Rockies were not interested in paying market price to keep him. Instead, they began quietly bad-mouthing Holliday to certain local media members who served as team mouthpieces. Before the 2009 season, Holliday was dealt to Oakland for a package of players that included Carlos Gonzalez. Then, at the trading deadline, the A’s flipped Holliday to the Cardinals. Like so many trade acquisitions before him, Holliday was sensational in his initial stint in a Cardinal uniform. Well, until that NLDS Game 2 disaster. That left a bitter taste in many a fan’s mouth (myself included, as I have mentioned).

Was Holliday worth the $100 million-plus contract Boras was demanding? Pujols was due to be a free after the 2011 season, and Adam Wainwright’s free agency loomed on the horizon as well. How would the Cardinals afford those guys if they gave a nine-figure deal to a guy who would probably end up as a DH? Many people (me included) had to pick up their jaws off the floor when the Cardinals signed him to a seven-year, $120 million deal. He’s not worth that much, I remember saying to anyone who would listen. They’ll regret this deal. Are they (Cardinals management) really ready to hitch their wagon to Holliday instead of Pujols?

We know how that one turned out, but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

As a teammate, I have never read or heard anything negative about Holliday. The Rockies’ attempted character assassination prior to trading Holliday failed. Instead, they came out looking like petty cheapskates who were afraid of Scott Boras. Through all the costly fielding blunders, Holliday’s teammates have defended him vigorously. Holliday drew the wrath of Giants fans (and a couple of blabbermouth ex-players like Will Clark), but Scutaro himself never spoke an angry word to the media about Holliday. He reminds me of Darryl Kile in the way he seems to be universally liked and respected by his peers. Holliday, meanwhile, quietly spoke after the game about how he has never intentionally injured someone and he expressed repeatedly expressed regret. As it turned out, Holliday had far more serious issues weighing on him at that moment.

In May, an article on MLB.com appeared about Kathy Holliday, Matt’s mother, being diagnosed with colon cancer in October 2012. The story (which was marvelously written by Jenifer Langosch) detailed how Matt got the MattHollidayAndMomphone call while the Cardinals were battling Washington in the Division Series. While the Cardinals were playing the Giants in the NLCS, Holliday was also dealing with what must have been agonizing fear for his mom’s health. I can tell you first-hand that that kind of worry can be paralyzing and all-encompassing. You see, during that same month, my wife underwent a double mastectomy due to breast cancer. There were days I was able to go to work and do my job reasonably well, but there were also others where I was understandably preoccupied and, therefore, unproductive. My job doesn’t involve anything approximating the pressure of October baseball. Holliday didn’t play very well, but in my mind, the fact that Holliday was able to take the field at all in front of millions of TV viewers is pretty damned remarkable.

Holliday was nominated by the Rockies in 2007 for the Roberto Clemente Award, given to a player who best exemplifies community involvement in addition to his contributions to his team (aside: Holliday was robbed of the MVP award that year). They don’t nominate jerks for that award. In addition to his charitable work in the Denver area, he has an extensive history of doing good things since moving to St. Louis, including Homers for Health (with teammate David Freese) in 2012, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and others. He doesn’t always come off well in TV interviews, but so what? Albert Pujols often looked like a surly drudge during interviews and few people cared about that. If Holliday treated fans or teammates that way, then it would bother me. So he doesn’t get enthused about yet another round of pre or post-game interviews; I probably wouldn’t, either. Big deal.

Let’s get back to some numbers: specifically, the $120 million-dollar contract Holliday signed before the 2010 season. After making $16.3 million in 2011-12, he will receive $17 million for the remaining five years. Let’s look at what Fangraphs has determined his actual value to be thus far:

• 2010: $25 million (158 games, 28 HR, 103 RBI, 95 runs, .312/.390/.532, 149 OPS+)
• 2011: $21.7 million (124 games, 22 HR, 75 RBI, 83 runs, .296/.388/.525, 151 OPS+)
• 2012: $20.9 million (157 games, 27 HR, 102 RBI, 95 runs, .295/.379/.497, 137 OPS+)

So, to answer my question from above: yes, team management knew what it was doing when they signed Holliday. The decision to let Pujols go a year later was a completely separate matter (and even more wisely handled). Holliday has been everything the Cardinals could have expected – a durable, productive player who handles himself with class on and off the field. In case you’re wondering, my choice at the time for an outfielder was Jason Bay. He had been traded from Pittsburgh to Boston at the 2008 trade deadline and put up a sensational 36-119-103 season with a 134 OPS+ for the Red Sox in 2009. I was convinced that he would come cheaper than Holliday, yet be nearly as productive. How’d that work out? Well, in his three years with the Mets, Bay was worth a COMBINED $2.8 million (including negative $4.4 million in 2012). Obviously, I was 100% wrong. But so were the Mets and many national baseball analysts, so that’s some consolation.

Compared to other sluggers (Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Ryan Howard), Holliday has been a bargain. Often, a bargain comes with some sort of caveat (“it wasn’t the exact color I wanted, but the price was so good”). With him, the caveat is that he will botch plays in the field or take a terrible at-bat at a bad time. But, as he has repeatedly proven over the years, he will deliver the numbers by season’s end. He is not irreplaceable, but he is reliable. In sports today, I think that’s good enough.

I wonder how much longer he can keep this up. Time will tell, of course, but he has already defied my expectations. As for the rest of it, I am no longer flummoxed. Maybe it’s because of that ugly C-word that was affecting his personal life and mine at the same time. Maybe he’s the same person/player he has always been and it’s me who has changed. I don’t know. Whatever the case, I have gradually become a fan of Matt Holliday, as a player, but even more so as a person. I reserve the right to mutter a profanity or two when he makes a bad error or bounces into a rally-killing double play, but I would do that regardless of the player. He’s become one of the guys I root for, instead of that guy who plays with the guys I root for. And the best part (at least to me)?

His mom is in remission, as is my wife. Maybe that’s all the reason I need.

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Cardinals/Brewers: Three thing to walk with

The Cardinals completed their most dominant weekend in recent years over the weekend, completing the rare four-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers. The potential of the team has never been in doubt, yet the reality of it had been. The team put that to rest for the moment, as the offense woke up in a major way, cranking out 48 hits across the series, while surrendering only 12 runs across the series. These runs surrendered actually came from the starting rotation mostly, as the bullpen, propelled by some new additions, became a strength for the team, holding the lead in a way that has been uncharacteristic far too often this season.

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All in all, the team leaves for the next stop on its current NL Central road spin, firmly ahead in the division and tied with the Boston Red Sox for the best record in baseball. The current six-game win streak the club is on is its second longest in the last four seasons, and also gives them four more road wins than any team in the National League. Here are three of the major factors that have played into the series that was.

1. Heart of lineup wakes up: Many of the struggles of the offense getting started this year has come at the heart of it. Matt Holliday has hit at a rate much lower than his average career output, and Allen Craig was a cleanup hitter than couldn’t hit the ball over the fence…or do much else of anything unless there was already somebody in place. And quite often, Holliday’s issue spilled into Craig’s, and it was just as frustrating to get them started as watching somebody try to bite their own ear.

Well, the power source of the club got to their job over the weekend, and it was no coincidence at all that the team had its best production of the year thus far as well. Holliday stepped into his usual role as a hammer, rocking the Brewers to the tone of a .333 average, 5 RBI and two home runs, including a monstrous 460 foot shot on Friday. Cardinal left fielder also scored seven runs in 3 games, and Craig is the cause of several of those. Craig had a prolific series, driving in seven runs on eight hits, including a double, triple and his first home run of the season. Overall, he hit .470 for the series, and got his clutch-hitting stats up to 22 RBI and a .412 average with runners in scoring position.

2. Baby Birds Hatched: The two most shocking moves of the season were both the comings and goings from the bullpen. In mercifully moving the struggling Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski to Memphis to work out their issues, the club brought up two of its best minor league starters to boost the pen. Seth Maness and, more shockingly, Carlos Martinez came up and immediately showcased why they have the billing they brought with them.

Maness, the organization’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2012, made two appearances, and quickly earned his stripes. He induced a bases-loaded double play in the eighth inning in his second appearance to hold off the Brewers and set up the club’s third win of the series. Martinez made a stunning impact, showcasing the high-90’s fastball that made him a Top 25 prospect in all of baseball a year ago. Both showed that the potential of the much-hyped Cardinal system is living up to the eye test standard as well.

3. Thawing Out: After entering the series in the worst stretch of his career, David Freese joined the break out party as well. He had three multi-hit games to start the series, and looked much more comfortable than he had all season. It was an encouraging effort from the laboring Freese to come to life and beginning to bring the much needed balance to the lower half of the Cardinal lineup.

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Cardinals Position of Interest: Organizational First Base

Of all positions in the Cardinals system, first base is perhaps the one that developed the most unexpectedly. While there was no need for a real succession plan due the long-term presence of Albert Pujols, and then Lance Berkman on the roster as well, it was a spot that could have left the team sorely in need of help. However, Allen Craig stepped up in both the wake of the departure of Pujols and injury issues of Berkman a year ago, and claimed it for his own. Fast forward a year later, and the position has both a long-term answer and yet another blooming talent at the MLB level in Matt Adams. But how will the future play out overall at the position? And will the surplus of talent lead to moves being made at spot, or will other issues make the team gun shy about jumping to any conclusions still?

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St. Louis: Craig came into his own as a full-time player last season. In his second full season, he played in 119 games and hit .307. He entered the season as a sort of utility man to support Berkman, as well as Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran in the outfield, but due to the repeated injuries to Berkman, he made 83 starts at first base and the position was his permanently by late summer. The 29-year old finished third on the team in runs batted in, helped in part by a National League-best .400 batting average with runners in scoring position. The team made a 5-year $31 million dollar commitment to him in response to his 2012, which presented another interesting situation in what to do with prospect Matt Adams.

Adams, who has averaged 20 homers a year in his minor league career and was the organization’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2011, found himself on the big league roster coming out of the spring. He has shown prodigious power, but is a fish out of water due to first base being his only position with Craig blocking him there. For now, the 24-year old will continue to be a potential big impact bat and spot starter in case of rest or a trip to the outfield for Craig, but of any of the organization’s top prospect, he is the one with a future that seems most likely to be spent elsewhere.

High Minors: With Adams with the big club, there is nothing of particular emphasis at Memphis currently regarding first base. Brock Peterson is manning it currently, but career minor leaguer is more his path. Xavier Scruggs will return to Springfield as a 25 year old for a second consecutive year, and while he has shown consistent power during his five year rise through the system (20+ homers the past three years), he still hasn’t put much pressure on breaking into even Triple A yet.

Low Minors: There’s not a particularly emergent player at the lower levels of the minors at first currently either. Danny Steinstra (24) and Jonathan Rodriguez (23) are in a time split at the position at Palm Beach, while David Washington (22) is manning the corner the next step down in Peoria. None of the trio profiles as a solution much further along the minors based on past performance and advanced age for the level. Among the more developmental prospects in the lower level is Jeremy Schaffer, who hit 10 home runs and 20 doubles at Rookie level Johnson City in 2012 after being an 18th round pick last June. He will open at Low-A Peoria, but if the 20-year old continues along with the same production as his pro debut began with, he’ll quickly rise to be the best prospect at the position in the organization.

Synopsis: First base is a top heavy position for the Cardinals, where the best talent is already on display at the Major League-level. Craig and Adams are both the future, simultaneously, so something will have to give eventually. But neither is making it easy, Craig with his fresh long-term deal and penchant for driving in runs, and Adams with his epically long drives. Yet a decision will have to be made, and once it is, the system as it currently stands does not offer much follow up promise behind either. The positive thing is that neither HAS to go anywhere anytime soon, and that is a good for staying strong at the top, while building in the system.

 

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Yahoo Sports: Allen Craig’s Impact

AllenCraig

COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals ensured that a core of players would be in place when they offered long-term contracts to some of their most talented employees. Allen Craig received one of those contracts based on his potential.

If the Cardinals are going to be successful in 2013, that potential will need to be realized.

No one doubts Allen Craig‘s abilities when he is on the field. His talents have earned him nicknames ranging from “The Wrench” to “That Amazing Whacker Guy.” He has earned a spot in the middle of a powerful lineup, between sluggers Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran. He is a run-producing machine with brilliant power displays and a solid batting average. In 2012, Craig finished 19th in the voting for the National League MVP.

What does it take for Craig to become an MVP mainstay? Simply put: health.

Read more about Allen Craig by clicking here

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