Since free agency began in November, Matt Holliday and Jason Bay have been the consensus two best hitters on the free agent market.
The general thought seems to be that while Bay is a great hitter, Holliday was the more desirable free agent for several reasons:
* Age: Holliday is almost 30 years old and should be entering his prime years. In contrast, Bay will be 32 years old this season.
* Defensive ability: Holliday has a 6.9 UZR for career and only one season with negative UZR. In contrast, Bay's career UZR is -7.9, and he has routinely put up statistically terrible defensive seasons.
And yes, Holliday is generally thought of as the superior offensive player, even though Bay is a pretty darn good hitter in his own right.
Admittedly, it seems that there are roughly a gazillion angles that you could take to examine the offensive ability and production of Jason Bay and Matt Holliday throughout their respective careers.
Holliday played a majority of his career at the very hitter friendly Coors Field. How much did that help him?
Holliday struggled during his brief tenure with the Oakland Athletics. How should that performance be taken into account?
Holliday's offensive numbers exploded once he was traded to the Cardinals. Was his statistical spike simply because of hitting behind Albert Pujols, or did Holliday finally find his stroke?
For years, Bay performed very well offensively for the Pirates (with the exception of 2007) even though the Pirates offense routinely stunk and Bay was surrounded with subpar talent. How would Bay's stats be different if he played in a hitter's ballpark with great talent around him?
Over the past year and a half, Jason Bay has been one of the Red Sox's best hitters and consistently put up big numbers when he was surrounded by great offensive talent. How much did that affect his stats? Does this prove that Bay can hit in both the National and American Leagues?
No matter how you slice it, the point is this: Both Jason Bay and Matt Holliday are excellent hitters. In fact, over the past two seasons, Holliday's wRAA (which judges the number of runs over replacement) was 46 and 33.9 (average 39.9), while Bay's wRAA was 32.4 and 36 (average 34.2).
So while it's clear that Holliday has been the superior offensive talent, the numbers suggest that Bay is not that far behind, and there is a good chance that Holliday's numbers will decline now that he is away from Coors Field, as evidenced by the drop from 46 (2008 with the Rockies) to 33.9 (2009 with A's/Cardinals).
So I think it's safe to say that Holliday was the more attractive free agent because he was younger than Bay and the superior hitter and defensive player of the two.
But does that justify why Bay only landed a four-year/$66 million contract with the Mets and Holliday got a seven-year/$120 million contract with the Cardinals? Is there any way to justify that Holliday should have landed a contract that is almost $60 million richer than that signed by the second best hitter on the free agent market? I don't think so.
Here's what I think happened: Holliday and Bay both struggled to find teams that were willing to meet their asking price. Bay wanted five years at $16 million annually; Holliday wanted at least seven years at $18 million annually and hoped for a Mark Teixeira-like contract.
Why did Holliday come so much closer to his desired contract? Blame it on Scott Boras.
The main suitor for Bay—the Mets—were willing to go four years maximum with Bay and refused to go any higher given how little competition there was for Bay and the risk involved with giving a 32-year-old a five-year contract. Sure, Bay still has the possibility of landing a five-year deal, but only four seasons are actually guaranteed with the Mets.
The main suitor for Holliday—the Cardinals—strangely gave in to Holliday's contract demands even though there was no other real competition for his services. Hell, Holliday's contract even includes an option for an eighth season! Was that really necessary?
The only offer that we know of for Holliday was the five-year/$82.5 million offer from the Red Sox (a few weeks back), and the Cardinals simply blew that offer away even though the Red Sox were no longer in the picture. It sure looks like the Cardinals wound up bidding against themselves, even though they eventually landed their guy.
I think the Cardinals could have landed Holliday without guaranteeing a seventh season and including anything about an eighth. Something in the six-year/$96 million range would have worked.
Maybe the Cardinals got anxious and wanted to have Holliday in the fold ASAP. Maybe the Cardinals wanted to act quickly, fearing that a big market club would swoop in and sign Holliday. Or maybe the Cardinals just really, really like Holliday and feel comfortable giving him such a large contract.
For my money, I'd take Jason Bay at $66 million over Matt Holliday at $120 million any day.
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