Scenarios emerging to keep both Holliday, DeRosa, for the right price

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Cardinals fans are having fun with all the Hot Stove League action this winter. In many ways, this off-field maneuvering is more interesting than a mid-week series against the Reds or Pirates down at Busch Stadium.

Multiple story lines are playing out at once. Scenarios change from minute to minute. Intrigue is building.

John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt have a game plan for retooling the Cardinals for 2010, but they are dealing with some vexing variables.

All along, I’ve made the case for signing gritty Mark DeRosa over Matt Holliday. I believed Matt could return here only if the free-agent market for him collapsed.

That hasn’t happened yet, but it appears current market pricing could allow the Cards to keep both hitters within the confines of a $100 million budget.

The puzzle would have to come together just right, however. Here are some of the dynamics:

–Holliday’s agent Scott Boras wants to make a nine-digit splash with his top offensive client. He is trying to drum up interest in a tepid market. The Angels, Dodgers, Mets, Red Sox and Yankees moved in other directions. Boras must find a wild-card suitor (Baltimore?) or get the Mets (if they lose out on Jason Bay) and Yankees (bidding farewell to Johnny Damon?) more interested.

–Cards management wants Holliday, but on its terms. Its offer features an annual salary within the current Albert Pujols/Chris Carpenter range, according to various reports. And instead of guaranteeing money for the longer haul, the Cards would tack option years onto the back of the contract.

The Cards prefer team option clauses, but this management team considers vesting triggers, too. So a five-year contract could become, say, an eight-year deal with larger money on the back end — IF the team picked up its option years or IF performance/durability goals are met. DeWitt prefers to hedge his bigger bets.

–Boras, in turn, likes opt-out clauses. This allows his clients to bail out of their contract if their market value grows or if the marketplace becomes more favorable. Boras likes to hedge his bets, too, especially when he settles for less than he was hoping for. An opt-out clause could be the key to keeping Holliday in St, Louis.

–While Boras works the marketplace on Holliday’s behalf, DeRosa wants to sign. Mozeliak sees DeRosa as a Plan B if he can’t get Holliday. But if I were the GM, I’d sign DeRosa now – especially after David Freese’s adventures came to light – and still leave the door ajar for Holliday. DeRosa offers too much value (offensive, versatility, leadership) to let go.

–If Mozeliak ended up with both Holliday and DeRosa, he could wedge both into his near-term budget. The Red Sox are paying most of Julio Lugo’s deal this season. Brendan Ryan, Colby Rasmus and Skip Schumaker are low-cost starters. Freese, Tyler Greene and Allen Craig could give the Cards a minimum wage bench. Mitchell Boggs, Jaime Garcia, Blake Hawskworth, Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan could help keep the pitching costs down.

Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan would want more seasoning on the 25-man roster, but taking on more kids would be a sensible tradeoff for keeping two big hitters aboard.

–Cards management could go to some of the current veterans and ask for salary deferments to make the 2010 budget work. And the signing bonus in the inevitable Pujols contract extension would have to be deferred as well.

–Going forward in this scenario, the Cards could have to deal somebody from the nucleus – probably Ryan Ludwick, who is moving into the bigger money now. If the Cards could keep Ludwick for at least one more season, the team would buy time for Freese, Craig and perhaps Jon Jay to grow into bigger roles.

–Going forward in this Holliday/DeRosa scenario, the Cards would have to spend less on pitching, too. Rather than sign an additional starter and reliever to multi-year deals, the Cards would have to offer minor-league deals with make-good clauses. Given the high number of free agents this year and the limited money in the market, some decent pitchers will be forced to work they way back in this season.

Making all this work would be a strain, of course, but it would be worth the effort.

Taking the DeRosa plunge now would offer some protection. If an expected turn in the Holliday negotiations made his return impossible, then the Cards would have DeRosa on board and money to spend on additional offense.

If the Cards ended up with both players, there are ways Mozeliak and DeWitt could make this work. The benefits of going for it on both DeRosa and Holliday – two hard-core competitors who fit this program well — are too great to pass up.

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