Taking a Closer Look at the Left Field Boppers: Jason Bay and Matt Holliday

Matt Holliday and Jason Bay figure to be some of the most sought after free agents in the offseason Matt Holliday and Jason Bay figure to be some of the most sought after free agents in the offseason

          

               Ever since the trades of Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen that ended the MV3 era in St. Louis, the Cardinals and Tony La Russa in particular have stressed the importance of protection around Albert Pujols.  Protecting Pujols is all about having a legitimate big bat behind Albert to make the pitcher think twice about pitching around Pujols in key situations (It could also be making sure there are runners on base in front of him so there is no place to put him, but that’s a topic for a different day).  La Russa lobbied publically that Matt Holliday would be the ideal person to protect Pujols, and he finally got his wish when John Mozeliak pulled off the biggest mid-season trade since Larry Walker in St. Louis.  The Cardinals raced to the division title, got swept in the playoffs, and now that the offseason is here the front office faces a familiar dilemma now that Holliday is a free agent.  He isn’t the only big bat left fielder that could protect Albert, however.

                Former Pirate Jason Bay’s contract has also expired after a season and a half with the Red Sox.  Bay is coming off a monster year in Boston offensively, posting a .267/.384/.537 line for a .921 ops with 36 homers, 103 runs, 118 RBI’s,  while walking in an exceptional 15% of his plate appearances.  It was the fourth time in the past five seasons Bay has hit over 30 homers, and he has proven himself to be a consistent power threat in the middle of any lineup.  There is some bad that comes with all that good, however, as Bay has some difficulties making contact, striking out 162 times(30.5% of his p.a.’s) and playing some very bad defense.  Bay was always considered an average Left Fielder until a knee injury in 2007 that seems to have hampered his range.  Bay has been worth -11.5, -18.4, and -13.9 runs below average in the field the past three seasons, and at age 31 he doesn’t figure to improve on that as time goes on.  Using Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, Bay was a 3.4 win player last year, good to be valued at just over 15 million on the free agent market.  As the probable top target after Holliday on the free agent market, Bay figures to be paid pretty handsomely for his services, and something like a 3 to 4 year deal worth 15 million annually wouldn’t be out of the question. 

                One guy who 15 million annually definitely will not be out of the question to is Matt Holliday.  Holliday is a Boras client entering the free agent market at the right time, as the Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals, and Mets are just some of the teams that could be in the bidding for his services.  It’s no wonder Holliday is considered the gem of the 2010 free agent class, as he is coming off a .313/.394/.515 slash line to go along with an 11% walk rate, 24 homers, 109 RBI’s, and 94 runs while overcoming a very slow start with Oakland before getting hot right before his trade to St. Louis and helping to ignite the Cardinals to the postseason.  Holliday is the rarest kind of hitter, as he carries a high average and blends it with impressive power.  There are several things that separate Holliday from Jason Bay, one of them being able to make contact as Holliday strikes out far less, whiffing in just over 17% in his p.a.’s and 101 times on the season.  Holliday is also a fine left fielder, despite his crucial error in game 2 of the NLDS against Los Angeles.  His UZR this past season was 5.3 runs above average, and as a year younger than Bay with no real injury history to speak of figures to stay at his current level for several more seasons.  Holliday’s WAR the past couple season was 5.6, making him valued at 25.4 million on the free agent market.  The reason for the massive difference in Holliday and Bays WAR is Holliday’s defense, as there is an almost 20 run gap between the two.  Holliday figures to get around 18 million annually on the free agent market, perhaps higher if Boras can find someone desperate enough.  The reason Bay’s worth on the free agent market will likely be close to what he is actually worth in terms of value and Holliday’s likely won’t be is because defense doesn’t get paid market value in terms of WAR like offense does. 

                So what should the Cardinals do?  Assuming Bay is in line for something like a 4/60 million dollar contract going forward and figures to stay at his 3 to 3.5 win level, Bay figures to produce around the 60 million dollars he would be getting paid, making him have zero surplus value(value in terms of WAR minus actual salary).  Having zero surplus value isn’t a bad thing, but a club can only afford to pay market value to so many players because of the higher cost that those players carry.  Holliday is probably in line for a 5-6 year deal worth around 18 million annually, making a 5 year 90 million dollar deal in the neighborhood of what he could expect assuming the bidding doesn’t get out of control.  Holliday at 18 or even 20 million still wouldn’t  match his value of 25 to 30 million he would be at assuming he stays at a 5.5 to 6 WAR level over the life of the deal, meaning Holliday would be a good value to whomever he signs with and will be producing some nice surplus value.  If I was John Mozeliak and I had to choose between giving Bay 15 million and Holliday 18-20 million, I would choose Holliday because even though Holliday costs more in terms of actual payroll dollars, the surplus value that the Holliday contract would be producing would be 5 to 10 million more of surplus value than the Bay one per season.  On the free agent market, 5-10 million would buy a 1.5-2 win player that would be worth and cost 4.5 to 9 million, and if Holliday is making just 3 to 5 million more than Bay per season, the money saved on Bay could only buy a player that could match the Holliday surplus value in terms of WAR, and that probably isn’t real reasonable to expect.  Bottom line is that if the Cardinals are going to try and protect Pujols by signing a big bat for Left Field, they should go for the bigger fish in Holliday or just allocate those resources to another area.