Well … exceptions can be made, of course. When the Texas Rangers got lured into the classic Boras shell game, bid against themselves and inexplicably gave Alex Rodriguez a $252 million contract, Boras happily adjusted. Winning? What? Who said anything about winning? Sign right here, A-Rod.

If Boras wants to spot Matt Holliday with a reasonably consistent winner, the Cardinals seem to be a good fit. Since DeWitt and partners took over in 1996, the Cardinals have qualified for the playoffs eight times in 14 seasons. Only three teams have won more regular-season games since ’96. And during that time, only the New York Yankees have won more postseason games than the Cardinals.

And the Cardinals would have won at least one more postseason game if a certain left fielder had caught a line drive with two out in the ninth inning and the Cardinals leading the Los Angeles Dodgers by a run in Game 2 of this year’s first round.

But this isn’t really about winning — unless we’re talking about the real Boras goal here, which is winning the biggest jackpot. Boras wants a Mark Teixeira deal — eight years, $180 million — for Holliday.

The Cardinals need to wait this out. Hold steady. There is no rush; Boras is in no hurry. Boras plans to slow-play these negotiations, calmly spinning a web until he can lure a GM or owner into his trap.

Boras only needs one patsy to make this click. All it takes is one nervous GM or owner to lunge for the Boras bait. And if that one sucker steps up, Boras will exploit their interest for every last dollar. And if Boras finds a malleable dupe, someone willing to wildly overpay, then the Cardinals are out of it.

If the Yankees decide they want Holliday at any cost, the Cardinals are out. Same with the Red Sox, Mets or Angels. If a high-spending franchise wants to bow down to Boras and hand over Teixeira money, then the Cardinals aren’t in the race.

Nor should they be. Holliday is a very good player, and he’s the best of a weak free-agent lot. But it’s madness to wreck your payroll to accommodate Holliday when you must structure a new deal with Albert Pujols by the end of the 2011 season, if not sooner. It would be lunacy for DeWitt to overreach financially on one player — provided, of course, that the chairman is willing to redirect the Holliday budget in a meaningful way, to fill multiple team needs. MORE BERNIE

We can discuss other options at greater length in a later column, but what about Chone Figgins? He’s a free-agent third baseman who can also play the outfield. He has a career on-base percentage of around .400 when he bats first or second in the lineup. And he’s fast. The Cardinals need to put people on ahead of Pujols. They need to be able to run and manufacture some runs. Figgins is an intriguing candidate.

And if the Red Sox don’t sign left fielder Jason Bay, consider this: Bay traditionally hits for more power on the road and has a better walk rate than Holliday.

My point: There are other ways to firm up your team.

Holliday doesn’t owe the Cardinals a discount. Holliday doesn’t owe the Cardinals anything. They took the chance in trading for him, knowing that he was a pending free agent represented by the toughest agent around. If money matters most to Holliday, then he was never going to stay here, and that’s fine. It’s his life.

But that works both ways. Just because the Cardinals made an aggressive trade for Holliday, it doesn’t mean they’re obligated to damage the long-term future of the franchise by overpaying to keep him here. The Cardinals took their shot at winning it all in 2009. They came up short, in part, because Holliday performed so poorly in the playoffs.

I don’t consider the trade a failure if Holliday leaves. I didn’t attach that precondition. If DeWitt makes a legitimate offer to Holliday, and that proposal is swatted away by Boras, then I have no problem with that. I’d vehemently protest only if DeWitt — after losing Holliday — goes cheap and is unwilling to buck up in other areas to upgrade the roster.

And I wouldn’t count the Cardinals out, yet, for this reason: Suppose Boras can’t find a stooge this time? It’s too early to read the true intentions of the Yankees, Mets, Angels or others. Are American League teams wary of Holliday? Will economic concerns flatten the free-agent market? What is Holliday’s real motivation? Too soon to tell.

The Cardinals should sit tight and see what develops. Boras is looking for a pigeon, an easy mark.

And unless Bill DeWitt suddenly turns into Bill DimWitt, I don’t think Boras will find his chump in St. Louis.

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