As you know, I’m a fan of a number of Cardinal podcasts and, of late, the Two Birds on a Bat Show has entered into my rotation. Besides their interesting back-and-forth, they also have a regular segment with Bengie Molina, whom you all know as a former major leaguer, a former Cardinal hitting coach, and most germanely to this discussion, the brother of current Cardinal catcher and icon Yadier Molina. On the most recent show, Bengie made a point to bring up Yadi’s upcoming contract extension talks.
There have been bits and pieces in the paper or on Twitter about Yadi’s desire for an extension. His contract ends at the end of 2017, though there is an option that the Cardinals will pick up assuming he can still put on the pads (or even if someone has to help him). So it’s not to crunch time as of yet. It’s not surprising that Molina might want a little more long-term security while the Cardinals might want to wait a bit and make sure that the 13,000 innings he’s caught since 2004, including a career-high (exactly how does a catcher have a career-high in innings caught at 34?) of 1218 last year, don’t catch up to him (pun unintended) all at one time.
If you listen to Bengie, it sounds like the Molina camp has been pushing the Cardinals for the extension while the club has been either hesitant or less than receptive, which is frustrating at least Bengie. Which is not unheard of in John Mozeliak negotiations, I don’t think. It felt like Albert Pujols was a bit miffed at the glacial pace of the front office back in 2009 and 2010, leading up to his final year in 2011. Communication between front office and player, at times, seems to be something less than exemplary, at least to us on the outside looking in. We obviously aren’t aware of everything, of course, so that could be a misconception.
Before we get any farther, let me say one thing: I hope Yadier Molina retires as a Cardinal. I hope he never plays anywhere else. TexasCardsFan1 and I were talking about players that had spent their whole years with the club and there aren’t many. Tom Pagnozzi is the last one that spent any length of time solely in a Cardinal uni (per the always excellent Mark Tomasik) and you’d probably have to back to maybe Bob Gibson to get a real icon that didn’t play anywhere else. We made a lot of “lifetime Cardinal” arguments when Pujols was up for his contract. Molina’s not to that level, but for what he means to the organization and the fanbase, he’s kinda close.
Yadi also complicated our thinking by having an excellent second half last season. Again, a 34 year old catcher, in the midst of catching more than he ever had before, should have been dragging at the plate. Instead, he hit .365 in the second half with six of his eight home runs and basically you start wondering just what he has left. You’d think the tank should be closer to E, but that makes it seem like he’s got a lot of miles left.
Still, 34 is old in catcher years. Johnny Bench was pretty much done catching at that age. Mike Piazza had a couple of more good years before he tailed off. Carlton Fisk did play into his forties and caught much of that time, so it’s not unheard of, but it’s quite rare. It’s tough to say that the Cardinals should fall over themselves to extend a guy that would really need to be an anomaly to make it worth their while. Let’s take a look at a few catchers and some basic stats for their Age 34-37 seasons.
That’s a sample of catchers selected from Yadi’s similarity scores on his Baseball-Reference page. There were some others, like his brother Bengie, that didn’t play long enough to be selected here. Bengie hit 20 homers in 2009, his Age 34 season, then played just one more season in the big leagues. Dropoffs can come quickly, very quickly. McCarver was splitting time at first by this time in his career, which is probably one of the reasons his offense looks better versus the other guys. It doesn’t feel logical that a guy that’s worked this hard should get better while he’s getting older, but that’s what the second half of last year could lead you to think. (BTW, Jose Molina played until age 39, but only played in over 100 games once in his career–age 37–and didn’t have the wear nor the bat that Yadi has.)
The money is not the issue. The Cardinals will pay him $14 million this coming year and $15 million if they pick up the option. They could well afford that and more even if his production suffered. The biggest issue is, eventually, Molina isn’t going to play every day and at some point the Cardinals have to prepare for that. They believe they are doing that now with Carson Kelly.
If you think that Molina is going to start 85% of the games for the next four years, you move Kelly. That’s not likely to be the case, though, and somehow you’ve got to start transitioning to Kelly while still keeping Molina’s wisdom and leadership. It’s a tough balancing act, especially for a player like Molina who will always think he’s the best option, even when his thumb should be in a cast.
What I would like to see is Mozeliak put a framework on the table. For 2017, the last real year of the contract, business as usual. Yadi’s the main man, assuming health, and Kelly gets seasoning at Memphis. They go ahead and pick up the option now for 2018, with the idea that Yadi’s workload eases to like 70% of the games, or Kelly plays twice a week, something like that. They add two years to the deal, with the idea that 2019 would see a fairly even split of workload and 2020 would be Yadi’s first as a backup. Then maybe some player option years at the end (at a lower cost, of course, since he’d be the backup) so Yadi can play as long as he wants.
Again, those are the expectations. If Molina slips more, maybe those percentages get adjusted. If Kelly doesn’t develop like they think, maybe Molina plays more. There’s got to be some plan for succession, though, especially with a proud player (with good reason!) like Yadi. I mean, if you are going to pay $18 million or so for the catcher spot, does it matter if $17 million of it goes to the backup and the rest to the starter?
There’s the potential for another Ozzie Smith/Royce Clayton situation and we don’t want that. If Tony La Russa had come to Ozzie and said, look, we need to transition to our future, can we work something out, I think that would have gone a lot better than it did. You definitely don’t want a situation where there is bad blood between the organization and a legendary player like Molina.
If that contract isn’t acceptable to Molina? Then it really gets dicey. You probably let him play out 2017, see how the season goes, pick up the option and try again this time next year to come up with something that works with the new information. If he hits .280 with 10 homers in 2017, that’ll impact things. If he hits .230 with some less-than-impressive defense, that will as well.
If Yadi wants to end his career in St. Louis, which it sounds like he does, then you’d like to think that the club can come to some sort of arrangement. However, Willie Mays played in Mets blue and Greg Maddux was a Padre for a while. It’d be strange to see Molina catching for Tampa Bay or the Angels, but it might just happen. As we saw with Pujols, there are limits to adding people to the lifetime Cardinal club, and if you go beyond them, the club will let you go. Money shouldn’t keep Molina out of St. Louis. Juggling the past with the future just might.