The move is a contrast to the way the club parted-ways with recent longtime Cardinal greats Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, but perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise. For one thing, and given John Mozeliak’s thriftiness, I’d guess it’s the most important thing: Molina’s likely productivity and cost probably line up better.
But re-signing Molina also continues something the ball club has made a point of for more than 50 years: Maintaining stability at the catcher position.
In the Expansion Era (defined as 1961-present), there have been 55 baseball seasons. For 29 of those seasons, the Cardinals primary catcher was one of just three men: Tim McCarver, Ted Simmons or Yadier Molina.
That is tremendous consistency at a position notorious for wearing players down. And even when you move beyond that trio, you find players who offered quality and stability, even if their tenure with the team was shorter.
When Whitey Herzog set out to remake the Cardinals in 1980, his first move was to sign Darrell Porter, who would spend five years as the club’s primary backstop and be named the MVP of the 1982 NLCS and World Series.
Acquisitions Mike Matheny and Tony Pena would hold down the starting catcher’s role for three and five seasons, respectively. Though he split time in his career as a starter and backup, Tom Pagnozzi caught nearly 1,000 games in his 12-year Cardinal career.
That small group of guys makes up damn near all of the catchers who have logged significant time for the Cardinals in the last 50 years. There’s an Eli Marrero here, a Todd Zeile there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many seasons where catcher was an uncertain spot for the Cardinals, where they were stuck signing some free agent jobber, cobbling together a platoon, etc.
But even out of that crop of great stability, Yadier Molina has been a rock. Since his 2004 debut, when he logged 51 games at the remarkably young age of 21, he has played no fewer than 110 games in 12 full seasons. That also puts him high on the all-time lists among catchers.
If he keeps that streak of 110+ games alive for three more years, he will be third all-time in the post-expansion era behind Ivan Rodriguez and Bob Boone. Were Yadi to hold down the starter’s job for all four years of his remaining contract, he would trail only Pudge.
Yadi’s 1,584 games behind the plate is currently good for 24th of all-time. He will surely end his career in the Top 10, and were he to somehow continue his pace of 135 games per season through his entire contract, would land 4th on the all-time list.
As a Cardinal, Molina already ranks 10th in games played. He will likely end his career 4th, behind only Stan Musial, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith.
There will be debates about Molina’s overall value, as his career WAR will land below what is generally considered “Hall of Fame worthy.” He will be an interesting test-case for the increasingly analytically-inclined voters. Most still believe there are aspects of a catcher’s value outside of what we can measure, and even among his somewhat mystical cohort, Yadi is the shaman.
But whether or not the newspaper-writer’s club decides Yadi belongs in their museum, he is the greatest Cardinals catcher of all-time, and that’s no small feat.