The addition of Mark DeRosa, then Matt Holliday defined the 2009 St. Louis Cardinals season.
Seeing a very legitimate chance of going deep into the playoffs and perhaps taking their second World Series in four years, the St. Louis Cardinals took a major risk on July 24 by trading for outfielder Matt Holliday. One month earlier, the club had added Mark DeRosa, who offered the promise of stability at third base and some immediate long ball pop.
In acquiring the two veterans, both impending free agents, the organization paid a high price, giving up in return five players taken in the first two rounds of the 2006 through 2008 drafts. All were considered top organizational prospects, with three having made their MLB debuts, one in Triple-A and the other in Double-A at the time.
They included relievers Chris Perez and Jess Todd, sent to Cleveland for DeRosa plus starting pitcher Clayton Mortensen, outfielder Shane Peterson and the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2008, third baseman Brett Wallace, who went to Oakland in return for Holliday.
The return was immediate and noticeable.
When the former Cubs fan favorite DeRosa was added on June 27, the Cardinals had lost their first place status and were trending south. Though the third baseman contributed, he hit the disabled list by July 1 due to a wrist injury that required post-season surgery. Despite slamming eight home runs in his first 22 games with the club, DeRosa skidded to a .228 average by season’s end.
By the time the Holliday deal was announced on July 24, the team had a precarious lead of just 1 ½ games. The Cards would go on to win 39 and lose 25 over the remainder of the regular season for a post-Holliday winning percentage of .609. They were the first to clinch and their final divisional cushion was a comfortable 7 ½ games after having reached a high-water mark of 11 1/2 games out front in early September.
Holliday offered what the Cardinals had been lacking and what caused manager Tony La Russa to campaign for his addition for several years, a legitimate clean-up hitter behind Albert Pujols.
Pujols’ rate of intentional walks had been an increasing problem as more and more National League managers decided to avoid giving Pujols a chance to beat them. That changed once Holliday arrived. The rate of Pujols’ intentional walks was more than cut in half once Holliday was batting behind him.
Pujols could not be pitched around as Holliday was on fire, batting .357 with 13 home runs and 57 RBI in just 63 games with St. Louis. Holliday’s total of 12 game-winning RBI was second-highest on the team. Pujols had 19, but it took him all season to accumulate them. At his new home, Busch Stadium, Holliday was even better, batting .385 (50-for-130) with nine home runs and 35 RBI in 34 games.
The success did not continue in the post-season, however. With Los Angeles manager Joe Torre avoiding Pujols, Holliday didn’t make the Dodgers pay. He batted just 2-for-12 (.167) in the three NLDS defeats, and did not immediately atone for his game 2 fielding error that turned a sure win into a loss. In the season-ending game 3 at home, Holliday went 0-for-4 with three left on base.
On the other hand, DeRosa, still dealing with the wrist problem, went 5-for-13 (.385) against the Dodgers, second to Colby Rasmus among the Cardinals starters.
Following the season, St. Louis offered both free agents arbitration, but they declined as expected. The Cardinals never seemed serious about re-signing DeRosa, instead likely using him as part of a fallback plan had they been unable to lure Holliday back.
Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, DeRosa signed a two-year contract with San Francisco prior to Holliday’s decision to remain a Cardinal for the next seven or eight years.
The Cardinals receive a compensatory pick in the 2010 draft for DeRosa’s departure, softening a bit of the blow of having yielded Perez and Todd. Yet the aggregate impact of the trades clearly weakened the Cardinals farm system with several years likely required to reload.
The acts of the trades as well as the subsequent financial commitment made to Holliday should have settled the lingering questions of some over Cardinals ownership’s commitment to win.
All in all, in my view, these bold trades and their subplots became the top story across the Cardinal Nation in 2009.
Next up: A look back at how my prediction from 12 months ago of the top five Cardinals stories of 2009 came to pass, followed by my look ahead to the top five Cardinals stories of 2010.
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