When Yadier Molina was coming up through the Cardinals' system the team didn't have top prospects so much as interesting prospects. Chris Duncan was Dave Duncan's son! Yadier Molina was Bengie's brother! Stubby Clapp had a funny name! Molina had his defensive reputation from the moment he hit the farm system; in 2002 he hit what amounted to the prospect map by putting together a .284/.331/.384 season in the Midwest League as a 19-year-old. He didn't strike out, he didn't walk, he didn't hit for power, he hit around .280. I don't think anybody realized at the time how close a look at his Major League skill-set we had gotten; I don't think anybody realized how valuable it would be.
The problem is that we already had Mike Matheny. Matheny was the kind of player I worried Molina would become—exceedingly popular, valuable in some nebulous way, clearly awful at the plate. When I went to games at Busch Stadium during the Matheny era it was like there was some kind of Orient-Express conspiracy going on around me in which everyone agreed to pretend he was one of the most valuable players on the team, in addition to being a stand-up guy with a great arm.
By the end of the Matheny era, and the beginning of my tenure as an Angry Young Blogger, I wasn't prepared for another several years of that. So it wasn't promising when he spent his first three seasons in the Major Leagues doing two different Mike Matheny impressions.
It didn't hurt that Molina had a better arm than Matheny, but it didn't much help, either, when he finished 2006 hitting .216/.274/.321. Molina was a strange terrible hitter; his isolated power was all right for a catcher, and he never struck out, but when he put a ball in play he hit just .226—and he was so slow, and so prone to weak ground balls, that that felt about right.
Of course, it wasn't—give him some of those singles back and you're looking at what we know now to be a representative Yadier Molina season. But his minor league numbers had all been good for reasons other than their own merits; he was young for his league, he was a catcher. It was hard to realize that he would end up performing the same routine in the Majors, but in 2007 he began a remunerative routine of hitting extremely well for a catcher.
Since that home run in the 2006 NLCS Molina's hit .284/.345/.377; he's just about maximized the value a player can generate from being exactly average as a hitter, and he's made his way into three All-Star Games. Not a bad outcome for a prospect-by-default.