JUPITER, Fla. – For two months, Matt Holliday has been working with St. Louis Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo on drills at first base. At 36, coming off a season derailed by a recurring leg injury, Holliday could probably benefit from a switch from the rigors of chasing down balls in the outfield to a more sedentary position.
He’s also aware of his teammates’ feelings, however. Matt Adams and Brandon Moss are the team’s primary first basemen. That’s why Holliday has tried to tamp down the story of his work around first base this spring, though it has been hard to overlook.
“It’s not like the organization said, ‘Look, you’re going to play a lot of first base this year,’ and I didn’t want it to come across like I was trying to be the first baseman,” Holliday said. “This is more just something that’s been fun, and if we need it, great. If not, no big deal.”
There is also the long-term view. Players often must prove versatile as they age, and Holliday said he has no intention of bowing out of baseball any time soon. One of his goals is to play the rest of his career as a Cardinal. After this season, the team holds a $17 million option for 2017.
“I have a passion and a love for the organization. I take a lot of pride in being a Cardinal and being part of the organization for seven years,” Holliday said. “I hope that’s the way it goes, but it’s not always the player's decision.”
Yet, in one way, Holliday has greater control over his near future than most players. If he finishes in the top 10 in National League MVP voting, his option automatically triggers. Agent Scott Boras had that clause written into the six-year, $120 million deal Holliday signed before the 2011 season.
In 2007, Holliday finished second to Jimmy Rollins in MVP voting. Since then, he has twice finished in the top dozen but never cracked the top 10.
“If I have a great year, it’s going to be a no-brainer. I hope to make it a no-brainer, to make the decision out of their hands, and if it’s in their hands to make it super easy,” Holliday said. “You can’t control the voting of the writers, but my goal is to make this decision easy for next year and, hopefully, beyond that.”
Holliday said he lost “quite a bit” of weight in the offseason by “cleaning up” his diet, though he didn’t want to divulge exactly how many pounds he dropped. As he spoke, he finished off a lunch of asparagus and steak. He is among the strongest players in baseball, but the team was happy to see him show up to camp leaner than in previous seasons.
“You have to make these adjustments as you age,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “Matt’s in incredible shape, he always is. He doesn’t let that slack, but I think he’s trying to figure out how to feel better on days he’s out there.”
Holliday has remained a steady run producer even as he has aged. His home run totals have been declining, but his hard-hit rate is impressive. He has a lifetime on-base percentage of .386, and he has never struck out much for a middle-of-the-lineup hitter. Since he turned 30, he has an .873 OPS. He’s still an elite hitter, provided he stays healthy.
Of course, age catches up to all players eventually. Some bow out on their own terms. Others let the game retire them. Holliday said he still loves the competition and the camaraderie of traveling with his teammates. He misses the time spent with his four children, who live near the Cardinals’ spring training stadium, but his wife, Leslee, takes them on a couple of road trips each season.
“I don’t know,” Holliday said, when asked how much longer he’d like to play. “I don’t think you know until you know. I love what I’m doing.”