Holliday deal shows how shrewd Beane is

This confirms it: Billy Beane is the Scott Boras of general managers.

And that is meant as the highest compliment.

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Boras’ genius is his ability to identify and exploit teams that might be desperate for his clients, even when he appears trapped.

That is exactly what Beane did in trading Matt Holliday to the Cardinals for infielder Brett Wallace, right-hander Clayton Mortensen and outfielder Shane Peterson.

The Cardinals reportedly received $1.5 million in the deal, helping offset the approximately $4.5 million remaining on Holliday’s contract.

But as one rival GM said, “I don’t think they needed to give up all that. What was Billy’s alternative to this deal?”

From all indications, there was none.

The Tigers did not have enough to satisfy Beane. The Giants were not a factor. And there was this bit of leverage for interested teams as well: If the A’s had kept Holliday, they would have needed to offer him salary arbitration this winter in order to receive two high draft picks as free-agent compensation. The A’s claimed they had the money to make such an offer, but others in the industry were skeptical.

The Cardinals knew all this, and still they went ahead. Perhaps, considering their unique circumstances, they had no choice. Manager Tony La Russa, who is in the final year of his contract, wanted Holliday badly. First baseman Albert Pujols, who is eligible for free
agency after the 2011 season, had questions about ownership’s commitment to winning.

Beane’s perfect suitor, in other words.

But not exactly suckers.

The Cardinals are now the clear favorites in the NL Central. They could re-sign Holliday or collect the two high draft picks by offering him arbitration. They also figure to trade infielder Troy Glaus, who is on a rehabilitation assignment after undergoing shoulder surgery, perhaps for another prospect.

Wallace, who is more of a first baseman than third baseman, more of an AL player than an NL one, had a limited future in St. Louis. Mortensen, according to the scouting reports of one club, projects more as a reliever, “but a pretty good one.” Peterson lacks a standout tool, but could be a useful extra player.

That still might be a lot to give up for two months of Matt Holliday, plus two draft picks. Wallace is going to hit; one rival GM describes him as “maybe Nick Johnson without the injuries, maybe better. Definitely a big-league bat, but we don’t think he’s a star.” Other executives hold a higher opinion of Wallace. The profile of him in the 2009 Baseball America Prospect Handbook says, “Think batting champ with the ability to be a big bopper.”

The point is, Beane escaped the trap. He effectively has traded closer Huston Street, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and left-hander Greg Smith — the players he sent to the Rockies for Holliday — for Wallace, Mortensen and Peterson. Not what Beane envisioned at the start. But far from a horrible outcome.

Many felt that Holliday’s poor start would diminish his trade value. That his contract could not be moved in a challenging economic environment. That even if Beane pulled off such a deal, he would receive a very limited return.

Beane did better than that, maybe much better.

Boras, who just happens to be Holliday’s agent, would be proud.