The Cardinals Are Finally Signing Greg Holland

For a very long time, Greg Holland was available as a free-agent closer. For a very long time, the Cardinals appeared to be in some need of a closer. Oh, at certain points, they expressed faith in Luke Gregerson. At certain other points, they expressed faith in Dominic Leone. But Holland was always going to find some sort of job, and the Cardinals have had the best opening. And so it’s unsurprising that we’ve wound up here: Holland and the Cardinals have agreed to a one-year contract worth $14 million. Holland only has to pass his physical, and then he’ll get back to being a ninth-inning weapon.

The Cardinals have never needed Greg Holland. This isn’t something being done out of necessity. I believe the Cardinals really would’ve been comfortable going into the year with the relievers they’ve had. Yet Holland and Scott Boras also apparently backed off their multi-year wishes. The Cardinals have a new reliever now at a cost lower than that of the qualifying offer. While this means the Cardinals might now have less midseason trade flexibility, this is like making a midseason trade ahead of time. And the Cardinals are right in position to make the most use of this upgrade.

Just from a win-curve perspective, the Cardinals are exactly where each additional win is worth the most. They project to be a strong wild-card contender, but they could have to hold off the Mets, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and other teams too. It looks like it’s going to be a crowded field. And it’s not as if the NL Central division is already decided — the Cardinals will have a shot to take down the Cubs. Improvements here make the biggest difference in the odds. I don’t think you can question that, with Greg Holland, the Cardinals have improved.

Once again, I don’t think they needed him. Bullpens are almost impossible to predict, but the Cardinals have no shortage of interesting arms. Bud Norris profiles as a poor man’s Greg Holland. Luke Gregerson has always been steady. Dominic Leone is coming off a breakout season, and so is Tyler Lyons. Brett Cecil remains a quality option, and the team recently promoted flame-throwing prospect Jordan Hicks, who earlier today dialed it up to 102 miles per hour. To say nothing of still other guys. There’s plenty of reason to believe the Cardinals’ bullpen would’ve been fine. Any one of those guys might’ve been able to close.

But they haven’t really closed. Not enough, not often. I don’t want to overstate things, here — I’m still kind of a closer-role skeptic. But the Cardinals were going to enter with bullpen question marks. Maybe it would’ve sorted itself out, and maybe it wouldn’t have. In a negative scenario, the Cardinals would still be in position to add a reliever sometime in July. Yet not only could uncertainty cost them games now — reliever prices in July are inflated. Especially if you’re in the market for a great one. The Cardinals tend not to want to trade from their youth. What they’re exchanging instead, for Holland, is $14 million, the 59th overall draft pick, and $0.5 million in international bonus money. That’s plenty of value, but the Cardinals are getting better now, and they’re not losing an actual prospect.

Assuming Holland does pass the physical, then the bullpen is deeper. And it’s worth pointing out that Norris had an ugly spring, while Gregerson is currently on the disabled list. Even if it turns out the whole bullpen outside of Holland is terrific, there’s nothing wrong with having even more depth. Guys like Leone and Lyons can be freed up to work in other high-leverage spots. Adding Holland effectively reduces the downside in the Cardinals’ bullpen. It’s one more guy who would have to fail in order for the unit to be a problem. It should furthermore be noted that the Cardinals might lean on their relievers an awful lot.

Say what you will about Mike Leake, but he was dependable, and he’s long gone. Ditto Lance Lynn. The Cardinals’ rotation might be fine, but it’s not stocked with proven deep workers. A good bullpen now has to have more than one or two quality options. The Cardinals might have several, and they’re all increasingly likely to be important. Having a greater number of reliable relievers reduces the burden on the starters. It also reduces the burden on each individual reliever. Pitching depth is one of those things we probably don’t capture very well in the projections, because a thin pitching staff can just completely fall apart.

We should talk about Holland, briefly. He’s 32 years old, and I don’t think he particularly wanted to have to be a free agent again next winter. But at least he won’t have the qualifying offer attached. Holland missed all of 2016 due to Tommy John surgery. He hasn’t been an actual dominant reliever since 2014. Since then, his velocity has dropped about three ticks. I can’t imagine that’s going to come back. Holland sits more around 93-94 than 96-97. He’s still almost exclusively fastball-slider.

If I could show you something encouraging, though, Holland is still quite talented at the art of missing bats.

In terms of contact, Holland hasn’t lost very much. At his best last season, he was as good as ever, missing velocity be damned. But Holland crashed last August. This gets spun as “Holland had a bad second half,” yet that’s not exactly right. Over the course of eight appearances, he allowed an incredible 14 runs in 6.1 innings. There were six walks, four strikeouts, and four home runs. Coincidentally, this slump took place shortly after Holland cut his right index finger in the kitchen. Maybe that was related, or maybe it was fatigue, or something mechanical. Whatever it was, Holland bounced back. Over his final 11 games, he allowed three runs and two walks, with 13 strikeouts. The less said about his brief wild-card-game appearance, the better.

So. There’s absolutely no question that Holland doesn’t throw as hard as he used to. There’s absolutely no question that Holland has more surgical scars than he used to. There’s absolutely no question that, last August, Holland was one of the worst pitchers in baseball. But even at reduced speeds, in 2017, the best version of Holland was still tremendous. He’s a righty who can pitch well to lefties, and Holland’s plate-discipline numbers still looked strong. His zone rate was at his career mark. His contact rate was at his career mark. His swing rates were around their career marks. When Greg Holland is on the mound, batters still find it hard to get the bat on the ball.

Holland comes with some risk, then, but he gives the Cardinals something of an easy way out. Now they don’t have to overthink the closer role. They can just plug in this guy who’s a proven long-time closer. It’s not like anyone else in the bullpen will be blocked, and this is just a one-year deal, which limits the Cardinals’ exposure. If Leone is great, he could move up. If Hicks is great, he could move up. This is basically a midseason addition in March, which has seen the Cardinals reach an all-time high for opening-day payroll. Presumably, that means there will be less money to play with in the midseason market, but if the Cardinals have their way, they won’t have to do anything by then anyhow. They’re already good, and now they’re that much more deep.

Sometimes the obvious moves are the obvious moves. If Holland doesn’t go on to throw enough strikes, he’s going to raise the blood pressure. But the same would’ve been true of anyone. The Cardinals have turned their bullpen into an asset, which is something to celebrate on an otherwise disappointing opening day.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Buhners Rocket Arm
Buhners Rocket Arm

It must be so easy for a GM to spend $14M of someone else’s money to shift the blame to the manager.