While catcher Jason Castro mulls over three-year offers from several teams, including the Rays, Tampa Bay still needs to plug holes at first base and in the outfield. If frugality continues to be the Rays’ motto in improving the offense, veteran slugger Matt Holliday fits the bill.
Holliday, who turns 37 in January, is coming off his second consecutive injury-riddled season with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 110 games, Holliday slashed .246/.322/.461 with 20 home runs and 62 runs batted in (109 wRC+) while battling a fractured right thumb. He returned from August surgery to hit his 20th bomb of the year — with his thumb still fractured — on September 30.
In 2015, Holliday made the National League All-Star team for the seventh time – his first as a starter – but a recurring right quadriceps injury allowed him to play in just 73 games. He slashed .279/.394/.410 with four homers and 35 RBIs (124 wRC+).
You might be sensing a theme.
While Holliday’s bat can still produce, defensively he’s a liability. According to FanGraphs, Holliday has not registered a positive UZR/150 in left field since 2012, and since 2011, he’s accounted for -34 defensive runs saved.
Holliday made a 10-game cameo at first base last season and in a small sample size, the former NL Batting champion graded out well in terms of UZR/150 (+10.5) and DRS (+1). If signed, the Rays would be wise to avoid mixing Holliday and the rough outfield turf at Tropicana Field.
It’s clear that Holliday’s time in the outfield is best left to memory and the occasional outing at first base can still give team’s positional flexibility. The Rays and every other American League East team is in the hunt for a designated hitter. Also, teams like the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, and Cleveland Indians are in need of hitting, primarily at first base and in the outfield.
Prominent names like Carlos Beltran and Mike Napoli are in the discussion. But how does Holliday’s 2016 compare to theirs?
- Holliday, 36: .246/.322/.461, 20 HRs, 62 RBIs (109 wRC+)
- Napoli, 35: .239/.335/.465, 34 HRs, 92 RBIs (113 wRC+)
- Beltran, 39: .295/.337/.513, 29 HRs, 73 RBIs (124 wRC+)
Napoli is the youngest and best defender of the three. Beltran was the superior hitter but if not for Holliday’s freak injury, he may have equaled – or surpassed – Beltran’s HR and RBI output. Holliday will enter 2017 two years younger and with more positional flexibility when compared to the switch-hitting Beltran.
At this point, Holliday’s value for 2017 is tough to guess because a desperate team in need of power may throw a lot of money his way and slot him in the outfield. But that seems unlikely for a near 37-year-old coming off two consecutive injury-shortened seasons with defensive limitations.
“I don’t have any idea of what my market will be,” Holliday said to Denver KMGH-TV 7’s Troy E. Renck last week.
It’s likely that most of Holliday’s interest will come as a designated hitter or a first baseman where his body would not be subject to the rigors of the outfield. While that likely does not change his value, here are some recent examples of salaries given to outfielders/first basemen in their late 30s.
- Torii Hunter, 40: One-year, $10.5 million [Minnesota Twins, 2015] | Year Prior: .286/.319./446, 17 HRs, 83 RBIs (114 wRC+)
- Lance Berkman, 37: One-year, $10 million [Texas Rangers, 2013] | Year Prior: .259/.381/.444, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs (124 wRC+)
- Ichiro Suzuki, 39: Two-year, $13 million [New York Yankees, 2013] | Year Prior: .283/.307/.390, 9 HRs, 55 RBIs (90 wRC+)
- Manny Ramirez, 40: One-Year, $2 million [Tampa Bay Rays, 2011] | Year Prior: .298/.409/.460, 9 HRs, 42 RBIs (140 wRC+)
- Johnny Damon, 37: One-year, $5.25 million [Tampa Bay Rays, 2011] | Year Prior: .271/.355/.401, 8 HRs, 81 RBIs (107 wRC+)
As you can see, two of these players were signed by the Rays; Damon and Ramirez were brought in as aging, yet productive veterans to bolster their lineup.
Ramirez retired five games into the season, electing to forego serving a PED suspension. Damon had a productive campaign, and it was his last significant stint in the majors.
The rest of those players generated their value through defense and baserunning (Ichiro), their reputation (Berkman), or an emotional homecoming (Hunter). Of the players listed, the closest comparison in terms of production the year prior is Hunter, who enjoyed one final season with the Twins before retiring.
It seems likely that Holliday is in line for a one-year, incentive-laden deal; however, a team that’s willing to go two years for Holliday will have the edge.
Jim Bowden projects Holliday to receive a one-year, $10 million deal, in line with Berkman and Hunter before him.
Where will Holliday go?
Rumors have connected Holliday and his former team, the Colorado Rockies, and that might make the most sense.
The Oklahoma native spent his first five seasons in the hitter-friendly Coors Field, making three All-Star teams, winning a batting title, and leading Colorado to its first World Series in 2007.
The Rockies’ outfield is packed with Charlie Blackmon, David Dahl, Carlos Gonzalez, and Gerardo Parra. Even if the Rockies traded one of them – Gonzalez’ name has been in rumors for years – Holliday would still not crack the outfield.
Mark Reynolds, the team’s primary first baseman in 2016 is a free agent and the team may use Holliday at that position instead, pending new manager Bud Black’s approval.
“If they were competitive with their offer I'd definitely consider it," Holliday told Renck in reference to re-signing with Colorado.
But that statement doesn’t just apply to Colorado; any team that’s competitive will entice Holliday.
The thing to watch will be if teams overlook his injuries the last two seasons in hopes of at least one healthy year. Would the Rays gamble that much on health?