Commentary

Holliday makes presence felt quickly

Slugger gives Cards what they need -- offense from someone other than Pujols

Updated: July 25, 2009, 2:08 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN

PHILADELPHIA -- He woke up a little before noon in a New York hotel room, still a trusty employee of the Oakland A's. Little did Matt Holliday know that a mere 7 hours later, he would find himself in Philadelphia, hitting cleanup for the St. Louis Cardinals.

But funny stuff can happen to guys like him this time of year. And Friday, that funny stuff happened to Matt Holliday.

He got traded Friday for the second time in eight months, this time from the A's to the Cardinals -- for a three-player package fronted by St. Louis' best hitting prospect, Brett Wallace.

It was a hefty price to pay for what might be a two-month rental, admitted the GM who paid it, John Mozeliak. But it was a price that reflected more than just the fact that the Cardinals have been chasing this guy since last winter.

It also reflected an important fact of modern baseball life:

[+] EnlargeMatt Holliday
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesBatting cleanup, Matt Holliday didn't hit the ball very hard in his Cardinals debut, but he still had four hits to show for it.
"You're not always going to be in contention," Mozeliak said.

So his team made this deal, even though it had no assurance that the guy it traded for will wear its uniform beyond this year. And Holliday didn't do anything to offer them any of those assurances, by the way, even on the day he arrived.

Asked before batting practice whether he was still pretty sure he'd be testing the free-agent market this winter, Holliday shook his head and said: "I'm pretty sure I'm excited to be a St. Louis Cardinal -- and I'm ready to go out on the field and hit."

Then out the door he went, all right -- to go 4-for-5 in his very first game as a Cardinal, an 8-1 whomping of the previously smoking Philadelphia Phillies.

We probably should note that two of those hits were infield squibbers and another was a bloop over first base. But whatever. It was the first four-hit game by any Cardinals cleanup hitter all season.

"A couple of them were just plain luck," Holliday conceded afterward. "But I'll take them."

But let the record also show that he mashed a double off the base of the right-center-field scoreboard, stole a base, drove in a run and scored one, too. So let's just say his new teammates noticed he was around.

"It took me three weeks to get a hit," quipped another recent Cardinals import, Mark DeRosa. "Then this guy comes in and jams four balls in there."

And Holliday's new teammates will take every darned one of them, too. Add his Louisville Slugger to a lineup that also has shipped in DeRosa and Julio Lugo (2-for-5 with a homer and triple Friday) this month, and you don't figure to be hearing much talk about how the Cardinals don't have enough offense anymore.

"He just changes the complexion of our lineup," DeRosa said. "He just lengthens it so much. … Putting another monster in the middle of our lineup kind of calms everybody down. Guys feel like they can pass the baton now. You don't need to be a hero."

Then again, that's easy to say on a night when his team traded for an .800 hitter. If all trades before the deadline went like that, how many deals do you think we'd see in the next week, anyhow?

"I don't know," DeRosa chuckled. "A lot."

Where this deal will lead Holliday and the Cardinals in the next couple of months, of course, not even the psychic hot lines can say for certain. But on paper, at least, it makes them one of the three best teams in the National League -- because it addresses their most important need:

Offense by people not named Albert Pujols.

That area hasn't exactly been the specialty of the house so far this year. You might have caught on to that trend.

On the one hand, the Cardinals have that Pujols dude making a run at the Triple Crown. On the other hand, looking at the numbers of the guys hitting behind him, one might ask: Uh, shouldn't that be impossible, seeing as how nobody should ever throw him a strike?

Heading into Friday's game, Cardinals cleanup hitters ranked 25th in the major leagues in batting (.250), 26th in extra-base hits (just 34 in 98 games), 23rd in on-base percentage (.325) and 22nd in OPS (.768).

Which has accomplished one thing, at least:

It has allowed Pujols to put himself on pace to get intentionally walked a ridiculous 56 times -- which would blow away the all-time record for the non-Barry Bonds portion of the universe. (Current record for a non-Bonds: 45, by Willie McCovey, in 1969.)

Holliday "He's the greatest player in the game. I've enjoyed watching him play. Now I get to play with him. And I'm excited about the opportunity.

-- Matt Holliday on new teammate Albert Pujols
But the Cardinals apparently have other stuff they'd like to accomplish this year besides making intentional-walk history. And Holliday sure seems like a guy who can make that other stuff possible.

Asked what impact Holliday might have on how Pujols is pitched, manager Tony La Russa made a point of saying he didn't want to show any disrespect to the men who have been hitting behind Pujols these first four months -- guys, he said, who really have been dealt "an unfair assignment."

"But the opposition has a different feel for Holliday," La Russa said. "He's had almost six years of production in this league. So it's a different feel. It's a different decision."

Of course, Holliday spewed out the first five years of that production while playing half his games at atmospheric Coors Field, where he hit .357, with a 1.068 OPS -- as opposed to .280, with an .803 OPS elsewhere.

Then he headed off to Oakland this season, where he hit .286, with an .877 OPS -- which beat the heck out of, say, Wilson Delgado numbers, but weren't quite elite-slugger numbers, either. So La Russa was asked whether he thought Holliday's struggles in Oakland might cause him to have any less presence in that cleanup spot, behind Sir Albert, than he used to have.

"My opinion, " La Russa replied, "is that just about everyone in this league -- pitchers, pitching coaches, managers -- are aware of Matt Holliday. And there isn't any perception that would be changed, especially since, in the last month or so, he's been more like the normal hitter that he is."

Well, it's actually in the past 2 months (since May 5) that Holliday has batted a respectable .310, with a .413 on-base percentage and a .905 OPS. But even that figure is misleading. In reality, his season has ridden a very strange roller coaster:

    • Opening Day through May 4 -- .223, 2 HR, .621 OPS
    • May 5 through June 6 -- .352, 6 HR, 1.058 OPS
    • June 7 through July 10 -- .236, 0 HR, .646 OPS
    • July 11 through Thursday -- .390, 3 HR, 1.178

Those twists and turns caused one veteran scout to say recently that he'd be wary of signing Holliday this winter -- because truly great hitters are great all the time, not every other month.

But in fairness to Holliday, he was a man trying to make a whole bunch of major adjustments on the fly -- from Colorado to Northern California, from NL to AL, from Coors to McAfee Coliseum, from a team he had played for his whole career to a team that basically was subletting him until a drooling customer such as the Cardinals came along.

When he was asked, however, to describe how difficult his time in Oakland was, especially the last week, when the rumors started flying, Holliday chose to recap his team's struggles, not his own. He did say, however, that over the past few weeks, he felt as if he "started swinging the bat pretty well."

The past few days, he said, he knew those Cardinals rumors were flying -- even though "I wasn't exactly scouring the Internet, looking for every bit of information I could find."

But he also told himself: "You never know what's going to happen. I talked to [A's GM] Billy [Beane], and he said he wasn't necessarily going to trade me [because] he wanted to get the equivalent of two first-round draft picks in order to trade me. So I hadn't really thought about it a whole lot because I figured it could go either way."

Instead, however, it went this-a-way:

A late-morning text message from Beane. Which led to a call to the GM that delivered the big news.

Which was followed by a pursuit of the age-old question, "What's the best way to get from New York to Philly on a busy Friday afternoon?"

Which was accompanied by some frantic packing by the entire Holliday family (which had made the trip east to New York).

Which then led them to an Amtrak train to be named later.

And the next thing Matt Holliday knew, there he was, sitting in a Cardinals hitters' meeting in La Russa's office in Citizens Bank Park, contemplating the true meaning of life batting behind Albert Pujols.

"He's the greatest player in the game," Holliday said of his new best amigo. "I've enjoyed watching him play. Now I get to play with him. And I'm excited about the opportunity."

Well, history will forever record that, on his first night with Holliday hitting behind him, Pujols wasn't intentionally walked all night. Then again, history also will record that he batted only once all night with a runner on base. Which might have had a little something to do with it.

Nevertheless, we'll get to spend the next couple of months measuring exactly how much Holliday can help Pujols get a few more strikes to hack at. But what we know now is that, on a wild and crazy Friday in the Eastern time zone, the Cardinals have told the world they're clearly going for it, right here, right now.

And given that Friday was the first of 10 straight games against the Phillies, the Dodgers and the rampaging Astros, the Cardinals picked an excellent time to add this fellow, too. Or at least that was a theory a Cardinals beat writer tossed out there to La Russa. But the manager was having none of that.

"There is no bad time to add him," La Russa said.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com