Matt Holliday is a big, line drive hitter with a sweet, even swing, a good batting eye and deceptive speed that shows in the outfield and on the bases, the kind of player who isn't great at any one thing but does everything well. Dwight Evans and Paul O'Neill in his Yankees days come to mind. So does Billy Williams, maybe the best of this class.
Such a player might be the best hitter on a good team, or the second-best on a very good one. He'll usually be in the running for an All-Star spot nearly every year, and win the occasional batting title or lead the league in walks or some such. Because Holliday, who turns 30 next week, does lots of things well, he'll age nicely, making up at the plate for what he loses elsewhere. Lock such a player up and you won't have to worry about his position for a decade.
The Cardinals may have overspent a bit by signing Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million deal this week, as there was no obvious rival for the outfielder's services willing to pay nearly as much; only Holliday's agent, Scott Boras, knows for sure. Still, it's fair pay since lesser players such as Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones and Vernon Wells have signed for more, and worrying about how it might constrain payroll years from now is a bit silly. When you have a guy who could end up rating as one of the dozen best players of all time (Albert Pujols) still in his prime and two ace pitchers (Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright), you should field the very best team you can afford and let the future play out as it will.
Compare this to the Mets' slightly desperate signing of the market's other top outfielder, Jason Bay, to a four-year, $66 million contract with an easily attained vesting option for a fifth year. Bay, 31, may be a vaguely better hitter than Holliday right now, but given his much narrower range of skills he's also a good bet for a quick decline. The Mets will likely wish they were rid of their new prize at some point during this contract. The Cardinals likely won't.
By now even your drunk Uncle Jack, who's still convinced that Joe Carter was the third-best hitter he ever saw, knows that defense is the new on-base average. Sharp teams are still saving cash by keying in on gloves, though.
Take the Mariners, who have bought out center fielder Franklin Gutierrez's remaining arbitration years and a year of free agency for $20.5 million. Gutierrez, 26, is a spectacular defender, so much so that you can heavily discount the advanced metrics that rate him as having been nearly 30 runs above average in the field this year and still rate him as having deserved a top 10 finish in MVP voting. (Forget plus/minus: The man made Jarrod Washburn look like Warren Spahn for several months. That's hard proof.) A contract for a player that good whose value was entirely tied up in batting average and home runs might have cost nearly as much for one season.
Why so cheap? The arbitration process is structurally biased toward traditional offensive stats such as runs batted in. Just look at what the Phillies had to pay Ryan Howard to keep him away from the arbitrators, if you dare. A team that has rights to a strong fielder like Gutierrez doesn't just benefit from his play, but from a system that isn't set up to take account of the advances that have been made in quantifying defense.
Elsewhere in defensive news, note that the Indians just signedAustin Kearns to a minor league deal. While he may be injury-prone and may not even be a league average hitter, his defense grades out quite well statistically, with a career rating of 10 runs above average per 150 games according to UZR. Why contenders are paying millions to the likes of Juan Pierre and Jeff Francoeur to play marginally -- if at all -- superior baseball to a guy like Kearns is a question to ponder.
Like Matt Holliday, Adrian Beltre, who agreed to a one-year, $10 million contract with Boston on Thursday, is a Boras client of a historically common type, the fantastic defensive third baseman with good power and an iffy batting average who walks 50 times a year. You could call him a poor man's Brooks Robinson (certainly no insult), but Beltre actually reminds me more of another specimen of the class, Graig Nettles. As Beltre did, Nettles spent much of his early prime doing a lot less than he should have with the bat, and as Beltre, 30, is about to do, Nettles moved to a better hitter's park as he entered his thirties. He then ripped off his three best seasons for a team that won three straight pennants.
You can't expect as much of Beltre, but he has the talent for that kind of late peak, and the potential to be the best bargain the Red Sox have had since they signed David Ortiz. At worst he'll make their pitchers look even better than they actually are and serve as a mildly dangerous bat in the bottom of the order, but if he really takes to Fenway he could be their best regular. One just hopes he starts wearing a cup.
There are as many viable strategies for team building as there are teams in baseball. Here you have the Mariners and Red Sox paying up for defense; there you have the Cardinals building around a few MVP and Cy Young contenders and their belief that Dave Duncan can turn any guy with a live sinker into a legitimate No. 2 starter; there you have the Twins preaching the virtues of the opposite-field single. A thousand gardens bloom, all of them wonderful.
My favorite is the Royals' keen strategy of recreating the 2009 White Sox offense. With their signing of outfielder Brian Anderson, reported interestin Scott Podsednik and last fall's Mark Teahen trade, in which they acquired Chris Getz and Josh Fields, they've now snookered away nearly half of last year's lineup. Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome are still out there.
The rest of the recent action has been unexciting. The Giants signed -- somewhat mysteriously -- revered utilityman Mark DeRosa; given his reputation one wonders if he, rather than Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Pablo Sandoval, will get credit if the team wins the West. (Probably so!)
• The Cubs signedMarlon Byrd to a three-year, $15 million deal that pays him to be a guy, which works well enough as he is... a guy.
• The Mariners traded for first baseman Casey Kotchman, showing that they're really serious about the defense thing.
• The Braves signedTroy Glaus, which makes sense, as the one thing between them and glory was clearly a 33-year-old who played 14 games last year and can be expected, if at the top of his game, to be an average hitter for his position.
• Even after Holliday and Bay signed, Yankees fans continued to not believe that Brett Gardner will start in left to open the season, despite ample evidence that he's a perfectly adequate solution there.
• The story of the week was the Hall of Fame voting. Lost a bit in all the unpleasant posturing was Andre Dawson. I loved watching him when I was a kid; I saw him after his prime, but he could still put the ball through the backstop from the warning track and hit it through the fence with just his wrists. His knees were gone, but as with Vladimir Guerrero today, you could glimpse what he was before his body let him down. I'd love to have seen him in Olympic Stadium, the Expos down by one in the ninth, with Tim Raines on second base, and I can't wait to hear the hand he gets sometime this summer at Wrigley Field.