Holliday may be most critical Cardinal

Slugger's viability at first base cements X-factor role

Holliday may be most critical Cardinal

JUPITER, Fla. -- Even if all were static and Matt Holliday had stayed put in left field, the position at which he's logged every one of his 13,838 2/3 big league innings, he would have been considered an X-factor to the Cardinals' upcoming season. But sprinkle in the added defensive versatility that has been on display these last six weeks, and his selection as such is an obvious one.

There may be no more critical piece on the Cardinals' 25-man roster than Holliday, whose bat can alter the look of a lineup that too often stalled last season, and whose glove -- that is, the extra one he recently added to his bag -- offers increased possibilities for the club.

How it all plays out will hinge on several factors, chief among them being Holliday's health. After missing half the 2015 season with a quad injury, Holliday reported to camp leaner and fitter. His retooled body composition turned heads, as did his play at first base.

What began as exploratory work over the winter bloomed into much more this spring. Without hesitation, manager Mike Matheny describes Holliday as a "viable option" at first base as the club gets ready to break camp. In fact, Holliday could play there as soon as Opening Day, when the Cardinals face Pittsburgh lefty Francisco Liriano.

"It's been fun to learn something new," Holliday said. "There's definitely a little bit of an adjustment period being that close in. But I feel like I've played a long time, and I'm athletic enough that with the proper training and work, I can do it."

Holliday's solo shot

The option of utilizing Holliday at first gives the Cardinals a right-handed complement to left-handed hitters Brandon Moss and Matt Adams. It could mean more at-bats for outfielder Tommy Pham and the chance for improved outfield defense.

"It just adds flexibility to lineup construction, for sure," general manager John Mozeliak added. "It's easier to give more at-bats when you're not putting someone solely in left field. It creates other opportunities for others."

The defensive versatility is a plus, but the Cardinals still need Holliday to make his biggest impact in the batter's box. Though his slugging percentage has dipped each year since 2010, Holliday, at the age of 36, still boasts the credentials of an offensive difference-maker.

Had he not been injured, Holliday, who reached base in 45 consecutive games to open the 2015 season, likely would have extended his string of seasons with 20-plus homers, 30-plus doubles, 75-plus RBIs and 80-plus runs scored to 10. His .379 batting average with runners in scoring position since 2013 is best in the Majors.

He brings power potential to a club that hit 137 homers last year and a chip on his shoulder from all the swirling speculation that his career is on the decline.

"Matt was having a great season [in 2015], and I would imagine he's motivated to put together a full one," Matheny said. "I think he's in a good spot physically and confidence-wise. I think he's in as good a place as we've seen."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.