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The Cardinals should extend Yadier Molina before the season begins

The time is now to decide whether to keep Yadi around longer.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Since the departure of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina has been the face of the Cardinals. He’s not only the longest tenured Cardinal, he’s the longest tenured player in the National League. I wrote about his progress at the plate in 2016, coming to the conclusion that his batted ball quality was about as good as advertised. That was kind of a precursor to this article. I wanted to get a strong understanding of just how good Yadi is right now, because the time is right for considering whether or not to extend him.

Technically, Yadi is under control for two more years, but 2018 is a mutual option for $13M over the buy-out amount. The tricky part there though, is that mutual options are rarely exercised by both sides. Right now, Yadi would have to have a pretty weak season to justify taking one year deal for $15M rather than testing the free agent market. Of course, Yadi probably prefers to stay in St. Louis, but we can’t depend on him wanting to give the team a home-town discount if they let him get all the way to free agency. His next deal is probably the last one where he can make a significant amount of money, and I’m guessing he acts accordingly.

Extend him now however, and you should be able to build a little bit of discount into those numbers. Yadi just finished a year in which he over-performed expectations, it makes sense for him to cash in now, rather than see his stock possibly drop over the next nine months.

Central to this conversation is Yadi’s possible replacements. Remember, we’re talking about Molina likely departing following 2017. That means the only realistic internal option for replacing him is Carson Kelly. Whether you’re willing to let Yadi go likely depends largely on your opinion of Kelly. The problem is, ideally Kelly takes over full-time duties in 2019. That gives the 22-year old one more year of everyday reps in Triple-A, and one year to backup Yadi and learn as much as he can from one of the best to field the position.

The Cardinals do have other catching prospects, but they’re farther off and less certain to make it. There’s Jeremy Martinez, who was selected out of college in the 4th round of last year’s draft. The Red Baron shared his thoughts on him when he was drafted and recently as part of the VEB Top Prospects list, ranking 23rd. The short version is that he has amazing plate discipline, but there are questions about his ability to stick at catcher.

There’s also Andrew Knizner, who is similar in terms of a strong ability to control the strike zone, but questions about staying behind the plate. He made The Red Baron’s Just Missed list. So did Carlos Soto, though as a recent international signing, he probably has several years to go before he even gets to the upper minors.

The point is, for the first time in a long time, the Cardinals have a good set of young talent brewing at the catching position. But they’re not quite ready to step in for Yadi yet. At the same time, Carson Kelly’s presence means the Cardinals don’t need him at all costs. The preference, I think, is to extend Molina, but to do the best they can to limit the amount of years. Of course, Yadi and his agent are going to do the best they can to get as many years as they can. That’s just another reason to start the discussion now rather than next off-season.

So let’s take a stab at valuing Yadi’s future. First off, I had a feeling that Yadi would age worse than the average player, making the assumption that the toll catching has on the body is worse than the average position. However, that means we run into a problem. While I frequently use a home-made aging curve for these topics, it’s based on data just from 2006 (both when regular drug testing started, and when aging curves started to change) to now. Splitting it up based on position makes for too small of a sample, especially when we’re talking about players in their late-30’s, which Yadi will enter soon.

I had a plan. I’d look at a total aging curve from 1960 on, for all position players. I’d then do the same for catchers. I could then apply the difference between the two to my average aging curve to create a new aging curve for catchers in this era. However, there was a wrench in my plan, because my assumption that catchers age harder was wrong:

This is all seasons from 1960 on. Non-catcher position players peak a little higher than their catching counterparts, but once you get to the decline part, the slopes are virtually the same. What this means to me, is that I can simply use my average aging curve when estimating Yadi’s value. Working with an average of Yadi’s 2017 Steamer and Zips projection, and applying an average aging curve, as well as the assumption of a $8.5M price per win and 5% inflation, here’s how Yadi’s value stacks up in future years:

Note that while I am not certain, I don’t believe Zips nor Steamer project framing value. Assuming that’s true, we can certainly add on value to represent it. saw Molina as being worth 9.3 runs above average in terms of framing last year. That adds nearly a whole win to Molina’s value. Teams have not paid a rate based on that in the past though, so maybe call it an extra half a win. We won’t even bother adding on value for pitch-calling and pitcher mentoring. These are ways Yadi adds value but I can’t pretend to estimate it.

Ideally, the Cardinals can just rework 2018 into an agreed upon salary. Give Kelly two years to get ready to be the starting catcher, and by then Martinez and Knizner may look like close-to-ready prospects, with perhaps Soto a couple of years behind him. Yasmani Grandal is also a free agent following 2018, if all else fails.

That’ll be tough to justify to Yadi’s side though. He’s coming off a strong year and would only be getting one extra year for it. In a way, it’s a bad thing for him because it could hugely hinder his eventual free agency case by delaying it a year. You got to give something to get something, and for the Cardinals that probably means guaranteeing 2019.

With adding in saved runs from framing, Yadi’s 2019 currently looks to be worth a little more than $20M. Worst case scenario, Yadi is a very expensive personal catching coach for Carson Kelly in 2019. That’s where I think the Cardinals and Yadi should find middle ground. The calculation above, plus the framing value, makes the case that Yadi is worth about $50M in 2018 and 2019. Again, that’s halving the framing value, and giving him nothing for the intangibles that the entire baseball world sees in Yadi. Discount that a little for the risk the Cardinals are taking a year earlier than they have to, and I like a deal at $44M over two years.

Thinks get trickier if Yadi’s side wants 2020 guaranteed. Even when factoring in framing value, he only projects to be worth a little north of $15M. Hey, everything has it’s price though. $54M over three years is far from ideal, but the above calculation implies he’s worth it. It would, however, require an understanding between Yadi and the team that he would have to take a backup/mentor role once that becomes what is best for the team.

I don’t think Yadi gets three new years though. Teams are more cautious than ever when it comes to players getting into their late 30’s, with good reason. Getting two additional guaranteed years at a $20M+ AAV a year before reaching free agency should represent a good haul for Yadi, especially considering where his stock was at this point last year. Get Yadi guaranteed through 2019. After that, I’m willing to bet that the Cards’ internal options can provide a better value playing at the league minimum.

On Thursday, I made the case that the Cardinals have not been complacent this off-season, citing the fact that they’ve spent the the third largest amount of money on free agents. Last week, I drew out my proposal for an extension for Carlos Martinez. While I think the team still needs a little more depth in the outfield, that’s a minor concern. The last big test of the off-season will be sensible extensions for Carlos Martinez and Yadier Molina.