We’ve known it for years, but the realization seems to have just bubbled up to the surface in the last week or so: This could be Yadier Molina’s last season as a Cardinal.
His guaranteed contract ends this year, and while there is a mutual option for 2018, mutual options are not really a thing. There is a chance team and player work out an extension this spring or even during the season, but Bengie Molina’s recent comments seem to hint that the odds of Yadi accepting any kind of sweetheart deal are unlikely.
The most likely scenario seems to be that the season comes to an end with no deal in place. Then, one side or the other will decline the mutual option (because they always do). At that point, the Cardinals will almost certainly make a qualifying offer. Yadi, looking to get a 3-4 year deal, will almost certainly reject the QO.
And then Yadier Molina will be a free agent.
Now, it is entirely possible that we reach this stage and Yadi still returns to the Cardinals in 2018... but I wouldn’t bet on it. If there is one thing we have seen repeatedly in the Mozeliak era, it is that once players become free agents, they are simply one of many commodities on the market.
Would Mo re-sign an all-time Cardinal great like Yadi? Of course he would. He would evaluate that player’s value just like every other commodity on the market. And if he judged that player to be the best option, he would gladly re-sign them. But as to how much value he places on “legacy” or seeing a player “retire a Cardinal,” I would estimate it at zero dollars and zero cents.
Matt Holliday is obviously Exhibit A in that regard. It would have cost the Cardinals just an extra $16 million to pickup his 2017 option. The Yankees ended up signing him for $13 million, so it’s reasonable to assume the Cardinals could have even brought him back at that number. ZiPS projects Holliday to be worth 0.9 WAR, which is probably worth around $8 million in pure dollars/WAR.
The point is this: What it would have taken to keep Holliday around and what he will likely be worth were not too far apart. But even that that amount was too much for Mo and Co. to fork over in the name of legacy. This endgame was clear enough to me that I wrote in August that it was time to say your goodbyes to Matt Holliday.
Now, the Yadi situation is different enough that I wouldn’t go as far and suggest you say your goodbyes, but don’t kid yourself by thinking that exactly the same factors are not at-play.
The biggest difference in the two situations is that Yadi is still a more valuable player and more useful to the Cardinals than Holliday was at the end of his tenure. As Craig noted in his Facebook chat, despite his rising prospect stock, Carson Kelly could easily be 2.5 years away from being ready to supplant Yadi as the team’s primary starter. Were Yadi to sign a 3-year deal, that means he would spend half the deal as the starter and half as the veteran backup.
I could certainly see the Cardinals offer Yadi a 3-year-deal priced for a declining catcher who they expect to spend the back-half of the deal as a backup. But would one of the 29 other teams offer more? It’s easy to imagine one of them would - either in terms of dollars or expected playing time during the contract. So what happens then?
I think we’ve established that the Cardinals won’t raise their offer in consideration of Yadi’s status in the community, contributions to the team, etc. Bengie’s already given an interview hinting that Yadi won’t take less than he feels he’s worth (or can get). It’s very easy for me to see Yadi leaving in that scenario, and it’s very easy for me to see us reaching that scenario.
So how should we feel if it comes to that?
Me, personally - the older I get, the less I’m concerned with things like guys “retiring a Cardinal” or “preserving their legacy.” I was disappointed to see guys like McGee or Lankford or Edmonds leave for another uniform, and I was crushed when Pujols left. But when you look back... do you really regret missing a front row seat to those final at-bats?
Sam Miller wrote a great piece at ESPN about the decline of Pujols, and I found this line particularly haunting:
Whatever trajectory you think Pujols is on, he's not. He's not five data points on a direct line with a sixth; rather, he's 640 muscles, 206 bones and about 10,000 baseball skills, all decaying at different speeds on uncertain timetables.
I realize I’m going to a fairly dark place this morning, asking you to think about The End of Molina when during the last half of last season and the WBC he’s looked as good as he has in years. But the Day of Reckoning for Molina and the Cardinals is coming sooner than we might think.
In a perfect world, I would hope for the Cardinals to re-sign Molina for 2-3 years. If all goes well with Kelly’s development, that would be the window for Yadi to hand the job off, with him likely spending the tail-end of the contract as Backup Catcher and Veteran Leadership Guy. You know, the kind they make movies about. And if Kelly stumbles, it gives them a likely still Major-League-caliber catcher while they scramble for a Plan B.
That is my hope, and don’t get me wrong, it could totally happen.
But as I look at the track record of this front office, and taking into account Bengie Molina’s comments and the competitive nature of Yadi (and let’s be honest, basically every Big League ballplayer), it’s easy for me to see a scenario where what’s best for the team and what’s best for the player are ever-so-slightly apart, and neither is willing to budge.