Yadier Molina's free agency and the St. Louis Cardinals' extension jitters

The Cardinals are in a weird place with Yadier Molina. In order of ascending weirdness:

1. Yadier Molina is a catcher. Catchers are difficult to value because they accumulate fewer wins above replacement than everybody else and they're scarier to lock in on long-term at the ages when most stars and near-stars become free agents. Since 2000 there's been all of 11 instances of five bWAR seasons from catchers, and four at six—Joe Mauer twice, Jorge Posada once (at 31), and Javy Lopez in that random season where he slugged .687.

Albert Pujols notched five WAR 11 times in that span. Shortstops did it 36 times, corner outfielders 60 times, and so on. A lot of this is likely related to our limited understanding of catcher defense, but unless the Cardinals know something we don't or are confident in a specific estimate of Molina's defensive abilities catchers remain more difficult to evaluate, let alone to sign long-term.

On the Cot's list of enormous contracts, there's Joe Mauer at sixth—$184 million over eight years—and Mike Piazza's highest-paid-player-in-baseball contract at the turn of the millennium. Before Mauer the biggest active catcher's contract was Jorge Posada's four year, $52 million deal. Catchers just rarely get long-term deals; the closest comparison I can come up with is Jason Varitek, who got a four year, $40 million deal to be the team captain of the Red Sox in 2005. Varitek was three years older than Molina will be, and had two Jason Varitek seasons and two below-average ones.

2. They didn't sign Albert Pujols. That leaves Yadier Molina atop the list of popular Lifelong Cardinals with just one year left on his contract. Right now the Cardinals basically look like last year's squad with a bunch of robotic old-player enhancements bolted to their spindlier limbs; 2013 will be our first glimpse at how or whether the Cardinals go in a different direction as they attempt to rebuild on the fly.

Whatever signal John Mozeliak intends to send, he'll have a hard time pushing it out there over the din of the Molina negotiations.

3. Yadier Molina is coming off a Brian McCann season. Typically I'd agree with Bernie Miklasz, who suggested yesterday that Molina's price will only go up over the course of the next season, but I don't see how Yadier Molina could be any more valuable than he is right now—and the gap between his current valuation and his "true" valuation might be wide enough to offset the bump he'll get in free agency.

Right now Molina couldn't look much better than he does: He's coming off an OPS+ of 126 and a career-high 14 home runs, he's played at least 130 games three years in a row, and he's just 29 years old. He's widely regarded as the best defensive catcher in baseball, and as difficult as that is to quantify he also just had the 31st-best offensive season of any catcher since 2000. Which probably isn't going into his Scott Boras-style notebook, but is impressive nevertheless.

4. The Cardinals don't have anything else going on at catcher. Really, this might be what forces the Cardinals' hand, no matter what the Cardinals of the next five years are supposed to look like. azruavatar did a great post about this a few weeks ago at Future RedbirdsBryan Anderson and Tony Cruz are backup options, Robert Stock might be a pitcher by the end of 2012, Audry Perez has walked 31 times in 216 games, and Cody Stanley was a league-average hitter as a 22-year-old in the Midwest League. And that's the catching situation in St. Louis.

Anderson and Cruz might reasonably spend time in a starting role if Molina were lost for a month, or if the Cardinals had a catching prospect in the wings, but right now the only thing keeping the Cardinals from spinning the Rod Barajas wheel of one-year contracts is Yadier Molina.

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The Astros will try Brett Wallace at third base, which makes sense to me inasmuch as he's had as much trouble hitting like a first baseman as he had fielding like a third baseman. A team like the Astros can and should try as much stuff like this as they can, even though I'm not sure Carlos Lee should be blocking anybody on a team that's going to lose 100 games.

Wayward Cardinals prospect positional-return power rankings: 3. Brett Wallace, third base; 2. Daric Barton, catcher; 1. Rick Ankiel, pitcher.

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The Roy Oswalt thing continues to get more ridiculous. At last glance, the Phillies were apparently considering—this will sound familiar—moving a pitcher they regretted signing in exchange for room to sign Oswalt to a one-year deal. You're right: This is the worst thing ever.

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