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Four years later, 2009 free-agent pair comes up big in LCSs

Oct 16, 2013, 1:58 AM EDT

ALCS - Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers - Game Three Getty Images

Headlined by three players, the post-2009 season MLB free agent class was undoubtedly the weakest seen in at least a decade. The prizes: Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday (acquired from the A’s earlier that summer), Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay and Angels right-hander John Lackey.

The field was so bad that the fourth biggest contract went to Chone Figgins (four years, $36 million from Seattle). Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman (six years, $30.25 million from the Reds) and left-hander Randy Wolf (three years, $29.75 million) were the only other players to get contracts worth a guaranteed $20 million.

The big question at the time was whether the Red Sox would re-sign Bay or try to upgrade to Holliday in left field. Instead, they shocked pretty much everyone with their play for Lackey, signing him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in mid-December. They added Mike Cameron on a two-year deal at the same time to officially take themselves out of the mix for the top two outfielders.

Bay went on to sign with the Mets two weeks later, getting a guaranteed $66 million over four years. About 10 days after that, Holliday reupped with the Cardinals for $120 million over seven years. The Orioles were also reported to be in the running for Holliday, but that might have been mostly posturing. Before signing Lackey, the Red Sox reportedly offered Holliday the same five-year, $82.5 million deal that the right-hander received, then moved on when it was declined.

Obviously, of the long-term contracts, only those given to Holliday and Chapman worked out as hoped. Lackey, though, has earned his money this year. He and Holliday both came up very big on Wednesday, with Lackey pitching 6 2/3 scoreless innings in Boston’s 1-0 win over Detroit and Holliday hitting a two-run homer in the Cardinals’ 4-2 defeat of the Dodgers.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how much different things would look right now if the Red Sox had stepped up and signed Holliday, as many thought they would. Lackey had a solid first season in Boston before posting a 6.41 ERA in 2011 and missing all of 2012 following Tommy John surgery. Cameron was injured and rather ineffective in his Boston stint. Obviously, Holliday would have been great to have around in the middle of the order from day one. However, if the Red Sox had signed him, they probably wouldn’t have landed Adrian Beltre on a bargain one-year deal later that winter. Those two went on to produce very similar numbers in 2010.

One thing is for sure: if the Red Sox had signed Holliday, they wouldn’t have given Carl Crawford a seven-year, $142 million contract to play left field the following winter. And if they hadn’t done that, there’s no megatrade with the Dodgers a year ago (perhaps they also don’t trade for Adrian Gonzalez in the first place).

And if the Cardinals had missed out on Holliday? Well, it doesn’t seem like they had any interest in Bay, so they probably would have dodged that bullet. It also isn’t very likely that they would have ended up with Lackey. Perhaps they would have signed Beltre instead, though that would have meant bypassing David Freese at third base. They also could went after Johnny Damon as a left fielder and leadoff man.

For the long term, without Holliday, one imagines there would have been no 2011 World Series championship. There likely would have been more pressure to re-sign Albert Pujols, and if the Cardinals could have gotten that done, not only would they probably be stuck with maybe the game’s worst contracts, but they could have missed out on Michael Wacha, who was selected with the Angels’ pick in the 2012 draft (also, the Angels very well could have ended up with Crawford in this scenario, making it even more likely that Pujols stays in St. Louis).

In the end, it seems that everything worked out for the best. Well, not for the Mets, obviously. And the Mariners. ¬†And the Angels. And, lets face it, 2011-12 weren’t too peachy for the Red Sox. But it definitely worked out best for the Cardinals, and I’m sure at least half of you will tell me that’s really all that matters.

  1. yankeepunk3000 - Oct 16, 2013 at 3:19 AM

    Got to give it up to the Cards. That deal has worked out pretty well for them. He’s been a pretty consistant force offensively and they stil have 3 years on the guy. Funny with him and Beltran Pujols numbers were replaced pretty easily. Now they have been in the NLCS 3 times in a row and have won two WS in roughly 7 years. That’s a well run organization with little holes, though I don’t really keep track of them all year I’ve grown to see how good they can be in the playoffs since they get there virtually every year. Gotta a lot of respect for the red birds that’s for sure.

  2. dan1111 - Oct 16, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    Interesting speculation about what might have been. How differently than expected things often turn out.
    I thought Holliday looked like an overpay at the time. But he has made that contract look good by hitting even better in his 30’s he did previously. Lackey’s contract seemed reasonable but was derailed by injury.

    Of course one can imagine a “what might have been” scenario that would have been better for the Sox. But they easily could have made different decisions that were as bad or even worse. Like signing Bay to a big contract, or signing Chone Figgins.

  3. stex52 - Oct 16, 2013 at 7:54 AM

    Very interesting set of speculations, Matt. Sort of a reminder that, like any other business, decisions have consequences that reverberate in very complex ways. Also, that most decisions have an element of failure in them.

  4. blacksables - Oct 16, 2013 at 8:01 AM

    If Hitler hadn’t invaded Poland, Barry Bonds would still be chasing Ted Williams.

    • dan1111 - Oct 16, 2013 at 8:35 AM

      Even if you add Williams’s career-best 43 homers for each year he missed due to WWII, he still ends up over 100 behind Bonds.

      • stex52 - Oct 16, 2013 at 9:07 AM

        But if you add in the most of two years that he lost for Korean service, it starts to get interesting. Bonds still probably wins on HR’s. But Williams might have well blown everyone away (Ruth included) on total slugging and OPS+.

        A little off-topic, but a personal opinion.

      • dan1111 - Oct 16, 2013 at 9:18 AM

        @stex, hmmm. If Hitler had not invaded Poland, would the Korean War also not have happened? Interesting question.

        Even if one makes extremely generous assumptions for all the time that Williams missed, he still falls short of Bonds and Aaron in homers. But I agree that it’s interesting to think about how crazily good his stats might have looked if he hadn’t missed all that time–particularly those peak age 24-26 years.

      • paperlions - Oct 16, 2013 at 9:27 AM

        If Hitler doesn’t invade Poland, does Bobby Bonds ever meet Barry’s mother? Without Hitler, Barry Bonds might not even have existed. Freaking Hilter.

      • zzalapski - Oct 16, 2013 at 9:59 AM

        That sounds like a Dr. Who episode for a *very* specific target audience.

      • stex52 - Oct 16, 2013 at 10:02 AM

        Dan, that went down a road I wasn’t thinking about at first. I was fixated on Williams’ performance. It has always been amazing to me that he gave up nearly five years of prime player time for military service and still was probably the best pure hitter ever.

        On point with you. It is difficult to see us in Korea if WW2 doesn’t happen first.

        I think we can all agree that Hitler was a bad guy.

      • umrguy42 - Oct 16, 2013 at 10:06 AM

        Paperlions: “Freaking Hilter.”


        :D

  5. hojo20 - Oct 16, 2013 at 8:10 AM

    I guess the Cards don’t need Pujols.

  6. tfbuckfutter - Oct 16, 2013 at 9:15 AM

    Lackey was not solid in 2010.

    ERA+ of 99 and more than a half run worse than his career average up to that point.

  7. paperlions - Oct 16, 2013 at 9:29 AM

    This was funny. Here, I thought this would finally be a positive article by Pouliot, focused on how two long-term deals are still paying dividends for their teams. Instead, it winds up concluding that all but one team involved in the story probably screwed up. I know, I should have seen that coming. I’m naive, I guess.

  8. mornelithe - Oct 16, 2013 at 2:35 PM

    “They also could went after Johnny Damon as a left fielder and leadoff man.”

    Who proof reads this stuff?

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