Holliday should provide much-needed protection for Pujols

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Clinging to a 1 1/2-game lead in the densely packed National League Central, the Cardinals simply could not allow the revolving door of cleanup hitters batting behind Pujols to continue to offer such meager support with their postseason hopes at stake. While Pujols is batting .328 and leading the league in home runs (34), RBIs (90), runs scored (77), OBP (.455), slugging percentage (.711), OPS (1.161) and total bases from the No. 3 spot, he has gotten inadequate protection from those hitting behind him. Already this season the Cardinals have tried at least seven different players in the cleanup role with limited success. Cardinals No. 4 hitters are batting .250/.325/.443 with 18 home runs, and just 39 walks (almost exactly half Pujols' total of 77).

Ryan Ludwick has gotten the majority of the at-bats behind Pujols this season, and is hitting a respectable .283/.341/.517 with 14 home runs and 55 RBIs. Manager Tony La Russa now has a heart of the lineup featuring three dangerous right-handed bats, with Pujols followed by Holliday and Ludwick in some order. There's not a lot of balance there, but the quality of hitters definitely makes it more difficult for opposing pitchers to navigate their way through the St. Louis lineup.

Regardless of where Holliday bats, however, he is a clear upgrade to their offense which ranks in the middle of the pack in virtually every statistical category (13th in home runs, 17th in runs scored, 24th in batting average, 19th in on-base percentage, 16th in slugging, 17th in walks), rankings that are skewed by the domination of Pujols, the only consistent threat in their everyday lineup.

The only question now is which Matt Holliday did the Cardinals get: the one who made three straight All-Star teams with the Rockies from 2006-08 while averaging .329 with 32 home runs and 113 RBIs over that span, or the one who slumped badly upon switching leagues this season, batting just .272 with eight home runs until going on a recent tear. Over the past two weeks, Holliday has resembled the fearsome slugger he was in Colorado, batting .390/.422/.756 with three home runs and 11 RBIs. A return to the more familiar National League should help him, as should a return to a more forgiving hitters' park, rather than the cavernous Coliseum in Oakland. The Cardinals will also have a head-start on trying to sign him to a long-term contract, which could entice Pujols to do the same in a few years when he becomes a free-agent if he senses the Cardinals are doing everything in their power to lessen the burden on their eight-time All-Star.

In dealing Holliday, the A's were willing to give up the two draft picks they would have gotten had he left at year's end as a free agent in exchange for a package of players that could all be on their roster next year, if not sooner. The prize is Wallace, who turns 23 next month, and is a lefty-hitting third baseman whose stocky build has raised some eyebrows but whose plate discipline and looming power are only expected to improve. Despite being in just his second season of pro ball since being the 13th overall pick in last year's draft, Wallace is on the cusp of the big leagues already. He started the year in Double-A but quickly earned a promotion to Triple-A Memphis, where he batted .293/.346/.423 in 62 games. Wallace could take over the hot corner next year if not sooner in Oakland for injury-prone Gold Glover Eric Chavez, whose back issues are likely to prevent him from being the player he was ever again, and could even force his retirement. Though some executives question Wallace's defense at third base, slotting him as more of a 1B/DH.

The A's also get Shane Peterson, a second-round pick by the Cardinals last year who was recently promoted to Double-A and has shown a knack for getting on-base (.377 OBP in 159 minor league games), which plays to Beane's known philosophy.

In addition, the A's get 24-year-old righty Clayton Mortensen, who has pitched one game in the bigs this season but has spent the majority of the year in the minors. Mortensen is another high draft pick, having been taken as a supplemental pick in the first round of the 2007 draft. Mortensen is 7-6 at Triple-A this season with a 4.37 ERA, more than a run below what he posted a year ago, and he's dropped his WHIP from 1.612 to 1.305. He's also upped his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 1.36 to 2.41. He could get a decent trial in Oakland before the year's over and compete for a spot in their young rotation for next season.