On Sunday, reports circulated that free-agent Matt Holliday had agreed to a 1-year/$13 Million deal with the New York Yankees. Holliday, as many Cardinals’ fans are well aware, is coming off arguably his least productive season in his entire career. Injuries have plagued much of his time for the last two seasons, and it’s clear that the Yankees are taking a bargain bin special on a possibly resurgent year. The move isn’t far out of line with the Yankees new identity. They would like for some of their new investments (*see last year’s lineup and trade deadline) to mature into their own personas, and adding a veteran like Holliday, one that can move into a DH slot with the ability to spot start in the outfield, allows the club to have a steady presence amongst their crop of budding young stars.
For the Cardinals, and their fans, the transaction marks a much different shift in identity: the end of an era. As baseball historians look back on the St. Louis Cardinals organization, there will surely be words written about the core of Pujols, Molina, Holliday, and Wainwright: a “core four” that have been the preeminent faces for much of the late 00’s-2010’s. Lately, though, the “core four” morphed into the “core three” after Pujols’ publicized split with the club after the 2011 season. With the superstar void evident, many clubs would have packed it in for a number of years, opting to rebuild a farm system and wither away in mediocrity.
Instead, the Cardinals rattled off four straight postseason appearances; helped along by the three consummate professionals that remained constant fixtures in the clubhouse. After Pujols left, Holliday stepped up and burdened the weight associated with hitting in the middle of the lineup. He became the everyday player that was an automatic plug for the three spot in the order, and rattled off 4.5, 4.0, and 3.6 WAR years in the three seasons after King Albert’s departure. And, what’s more, he proved to be every bit of the player that the Cardinals signed as the most lucrative in franchise history at 7-years/$120 Million.
But, things change and time waits for no man. The three-headed monster of Holliday, Molina, and Wainwright has shown signs of aging and a noticeable drop in quality (save Molina’s outlier 2016 season). Holliday played in only 73 games in 2015 and 110 games in 2016, the two lowest outputs of his career. His WAR dropped to 0.9 and 0.7, respectively, and the Cardinals made their intentions to depart with the slugger evident when the time came to exercise his 2017-option.
So, now that one of the three fan-favorite veterans has found a new pasture, the question becomes: What now?
Yes, the Cardinals still have burgeoning young stars bursting at the seams. Matt Carpenter has molded himself into the same type of veteran superstar, albeit underrated, that the Cardinals have become accustomed to. Stephen Piscotty, Aledmys Diaz, and Carlos Martinez have all proven to be young upstarts with staying power. Even Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong, both of whom have suffered minored setbacks at times, still appear to have bright futures ahead. By no means does the departure of Holliday mean a death sentence for this team.
Yet, perhaps it does mean a death sentence for the identity that we have become so familiar with for this generation’s Cardinals. Molina and Wainwright remain the only two players on the roster to have played, and won, the 2006 and 2011 World Series. Even when just looking at remaining players from the 2011 team, one can see that the current iteration of the Cardinals’ roster barely resembles that squad. So, when a player like Holliday does leave, it is cause for reflection.
Surely, Holliday will demand respect from the Cardinals’ organization and fans alike for many years after he retires. His time spent in St. Louis proved to be more than plentiful, only missing out on the playoffs twice in his 7 ½ seasons, and it remained that way for both the player and the club. This team and its fans have a tendency to be spoiled in riches and success. Sometimes it’s important to stop in the midst of this success, and appreciate the sheer luck associated with that ridiculous fortune. Holliday is, and will forever be, a major contributor to these triumphs. Perhaps that’s why it’s difficult to say goodbye.