Cards played the waiting game … and won

St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak played the waiting game — and won.

The Cardinals were after Matt Holliday last winter.

The Rockies asking price was steep.

Oakland outbid the Cardinals.

Eight months later, the A’s had to salvage what they could, and sent Holliday to St. Louis.

It’s a win-win for Mozeliak.

He avoided the temptation last winter, when the Rockies were looking at a return on Holliday of big-league outfielder Ryan Ludwick, second baseman/outfielder Skip Schumaker, and right-handed pitcher Mitchell Boggs, who spent time in the Cardinals rotation earlier this season.

Without Holliday, the Cardinals still found themselves in first place in the NL Central, leading by a game on Friday morning.

Then they got Holliday from Oakland. As well as bringing a legitimate bat to compliment Albert Pujols, Holliday also provides an emotional lift to his new teammates because the organization stepped up and added the right-handed slugger. The cost? Three prospects, none of which showed promise of having an impact in St. Louis.

It’s a gamble that backfired on Oakland general manager Billy Beane, who gave up closer Huston Street, promising outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, and left-handed pitcher Greg Smith to acquire Holliday. His hope was that a strong first half by Holliday would perk the interest of contenders, but instead, economic concerns along with a sluggish begging for Holliday, left Beane without a strong bidding war.

His option was to bite the bullet, allow Holliday to file for free agency, then offer him arbitration with the expectation he would get two first-round draft picks as compensation for losing Holliday. The uncertainty about the free agent market this offseason, however, created the possibility that agent Scott Boras could call Beane’s bluff and accept arbitration from Oakland, like he did once for Kevin Millwood in Atlanta.

That meant Beane had to cut his losses and take what he could get for Holliday, even if it also required the tight-budged A’s to include $1.5 million to help offset what remains on Holliday’s $13.5 million salary in 2009.

Beane went 0-for-3.

Brett Wallace was the strongest prospect of the three players the Cardinals parted with, but he is a DH-in-waiting, nothing more. He showed big-time power at Arizona State, which prompted St. Louis to make him a first-round draft choice last June, but was rushed in the Cardinals depleted farm system, and had only 35 RBI this year in 94 games combined between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Louisville.

Right-handed pitcher Clayton Mortensen was the Cardinals’ No. 1 pick in 2007, and like Wallace has been rushed in the minors, where he is a combined 16-19 with a 4.31 earned-run average.

The A’s, meanwhile, picked up minor-league outfielder Shane Peterson as the third player from St. Louis, a second-round draft pick from a year ago, who is considered a “tweener” among scouts, which means he projects as a possible backup outfielder, not having the speed to be a center fielder on a contender nor the power to play a corner position on a daily basis.

For general manager Dan O’Dowd, watching the Holliday deal come down on Friday had to reaffirm his confidence in the decision he made last winter. There were questions at the time as to whether he might have been able to get a stronger package in return for Holliday if he had held on to the outfielder until July.

The answer appears to be an emphatic no, particularly not for a team like the Rockies that had visions of contending, even if it did feel it was necessary to move a middle-of-the-lineup player like Holliday.

It was silly listening to a national commentator the other night mentioning that the Rockies had moved ahead of the Giants in the wild-card race, and then musing about how good they might have been if Holliday had still been in Colorado.

A key reason that the Rockies are where they are is they dealt Holliday. That’s not a knock on Holliday, but rather a statement of what Huston Street has meant to the Rockies. The question Rockies fans are left to ponder is where they would have been without Street.

Street has regained his late-inning magic, and went into the weekend not only tied for the NL lead with 24 saves, but had failed in only one save situation this season and had converted his last 16 opportunities, the longest current streak in the big leagues.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, is only 10 months older the Wallace, and while he doesn’t have Wallace’s power, Wallace is not in the same area code as Gonzalez in any other aspect of the game. And while Smith is rebuilding arm strength following surgery last October, he already has proven he can be a capable back of the rotation starter, which is what the A’s are only hoping Mortensen can handle.

Here’s an ironic twist to the whole deal. In the 2008 draft, the A’s, in both the first and second rounds, passed on Wallace and Peterson. Oakland selected Jemile Weeks in the first round, directly ahead of St. Louis picking Wallace, and Oakland selected right-hander Tyson Ross in the second round, directly ahead of St. Louis picking Peterson.