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Why a Molina Extension is a Good Idea

Molina will only play for the Cardinals and he wants to play for another two years. What does an extension look like and how does that affect the roster & budget?

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Cardinals’ future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina made news this off-season when he declared his desire to continue playing beyond his current contract. In 2018, Molina signed a three-year $60 million extension that was supposed to carry him to retirement at age 38. At the recent Winter Warm-Up, Molina expanded on his initial comments, talking in detail about his desire to continue playing, who he is willing to play for, and how he’s feeling physically:

Molina is a Cardinal legend and is beloved by fans. Since Albert Pujols’ departure, Molina, along with Adam Wainwright, have served as the faces of the franchise through one of the most successful runs in team history. The front office is very aware fan sentiment and that has been a motivating factor in keeping both stars locked up late into their careers. It seems inevitable that if Molina wants to continue playing, the Cardinals will let him continue playing for them.

That could be a problem.

Yadi’s offense has already slipped since his peak. In 2019, at age 36/37, Molina posted a .270/.312/.399 line with a .303 wOBA. Baseball holds catchers to a lower offensive standard than other positions, but that’s still not very good. Despite having the reputation as an iron-man who is rarely willing to take days off, Molina’s games played by season have dropped steadily over the last four years: 147, 136, 123, 113. Molina’s penchant for injury has required the team to invest in the stable Matt Wieters as his backup. In 2020, the Cardinals will spend the third most money in the league, $22M, on the catcher position while only expecting a league average projection of 2.1 fWAR.

All of that is a great argument for the front office to harden their heart and let Molina choose between retirement or playing elsewhere. Doing so would allow the club to re-invest Molina’s salary in a more productive catcher or go young and cheap at the position, freeing up needed budget room for other upgrades.

That’s the argument I expected to make when I began my research. However, after looking at how other teams have used and paid age 38+ catchers, I now believe there is an alternative path that keeps Molina in a needed role as a Cardinal for life, while creating space for young catching prospects to develop, and freeing up considerable budget space.

Let’s start by considering the careers of other age 38+ catchers since 2000 in terms of games played and production.

Age 38+ Catchers, 81 games or more

Season Name Team G PA wOBA wRC+ WAR
Season Name Team G PA wOBA wRC+ WAR
2010 Jorge Posada Yankees 120 451 0.357 119 -0.9
2007 Brad Ausmus Astros 117 397 0.29 70 -0.2
2015 A.J. Pierzynski Braves 113 436 0.333 111 0.9
2010 Ivan Rodriguez Nationals 111 421 0.282 70 1.5
2003 Benito Santiago Giants 108 434 0.329 99 1.4
2002 Tom Lampkin Padres 104 327 0.295 82 1
2013 Jose Molina Rays 99 313 0.266 67 2.1
2009 Gregg Zaun - - - 90 296 0.338 102 3.6
2008 Brad Ausmus Astros 81 250 0.272 61 0
2016 A.J. Pierzynski Braves 81 259 0.236 41 -1.7

Since 2000, there have been 50 individual seasons from catchers age 38+, more than any other infield position. Playing time for these fifty seasons was predictably low. 60% of catcher seasons age 38+ received over 100 plate appearances. Only 28% received 200 or more. The chart above includes a sample of that list, where the age 38+ catcher appeared in at least 81 games. This has happened 10 times, with only Brad Ausmus and A.J. Pierzynski accomplishing that feat more than once.

This list does include a few names that compare relatively favorably with Molina. These select few catchers who received considerable playing time in the twilight of their career were known for at least one superior skill. In the case of Ausmus, Jose Molina, and Zaun, their quality defense held up into their late 30’s. For Posada, Varitek and Pierzynski, their offensive history kept them employed. A select few were like Molina, players who excelled in both areas during their careers, including Benito Santiago and Ivan Rodriguez.

From a production standpoint, the list provides little encouragement. Almost all the age 38+ catchers since 2000 were below average producers and the vast majority were near replacement level. Defensive ability and playing time seems to be what separates the few who produced 1.0+ fWAR from the rest of the pack.

What does this tell us? While age 38+ catchers are not as rare as I expected, almost all of them were either contracted as backups or could only stay healthy enough to fulfill a part-time role. Defense, which seems to be the most valued trait for a backup catcher of any age, is largely what kept them useful.

If Molina’s career is to continue past this coming season, the Cardinals could probably expect one season where he splits time with another player (81-100 games) and potentially a second season where he is the clear backup to a regular starter (less than 200 PA’s). As long as Yadi continues to be a positive defensive player — and history provides reasons to believe this should be the case — the Cardinals can expect him to perform at or near replacement level.

While that kind of expectations would be troublesome if the Cardinals expected Molina to be a stalwart starter, it fits fine with what the club actually needs.

St. Louis Cardinals v Colorado Rockies Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I surveyed some prospect analysts and most seem to agree that Andrew Knizner needs continued patience with his defensive development. There is an undercurrent of pessimism about whether he will become an average or better receiver. The same is not true of his bat, where he looks ready now to provide solid offensive production.

In 2021, Knizner will be a finished product, one way or the other, and only lacking MLB exposure. Because of his potential defensive shortcomings, it seems wise to couple him with a stronger defensive player who could provide competition and handle tougher catching assignments. In other words, a smart approach would be to create a time share at catcher in 2021, with Molina providing defense in support of Knizner and his bat. Playing time would need to work itself out based upon the health and performance of both players.

By 2022, Knizner will either be ready to take a full-time starters’ load, or the club will know it needs to make alternative arrangements. That could be budding prospect Ivan Herrera or an external addition. Molina could continue as a backup in either case.

What Molina provides is trusted support at a key defensive position while the Cards see what they have in their young talent. How much is that trust worth?

Ivan Rodriguez is probably the closest contemporary comparable to Molina. He signed a 2 year/$6m deal at age 38-39, covering 2010-11. In 2010-11 terms, the monetary value of 1 WAR was also around $6M. That makes the math easy. The Nationals paid the Hall of Famer to be a just-above-replacement, platoon-level receiver for the final two seasons of his career. This is very close to the scenario we are describing for Molina.

In 2019, 1 WAR was worth $8M. The Cardinals have already negotiated a contract with a fan-favorite, face-of-the-franchise player based around this 1 WAR dollar value. At age 38, Wainwright received a 1 year $5M incentive-based contract. If Wainwright starts 25 games, he will earn a total of $8M. ZiPS currently projects Waino for 23 starts and 1.1 fWAR. If Wainwright meets expectations, he will provide the team 1 WAR of production for about 1 WAR of cost. If he earns more playing time, then he is further compensated with another $2M at 28 starts.

Using this as a model, the Cardinals could offer Molina a one-year, $5M contract, with incentives that escalate to $1.5M each for 80 and 100 games played, assuming he would reach a base of 1 WAR between 100-120 games. They could then offer an additional $2M if he exceeds 120. This would allow Molina to claim a significant $10M salary if he can earn it, and the Cardinals to bank on production just slightly better than an average replacement level backup. In 2022, this deal could be adjusted as necessary, depending on health, player development, and Molina’s own desires.

In this scenario, the Cardinals gain $15M in available Opening Day payroll space in 2021. They get to honor fan sentiment for their future Hall of Famer. They get to give Knizner and Herrera all the time they need to further develop. Molina gets to continue playing and retire when he chooses with the team he chooses. It’s an all-around win.

The deal does present some challenges. Molina would have to be willing to accept a more limited role. He also has to prove he’s worthy of an extension this season by displaying decent health and continued above average defense. This is not a deal that the Cardinals should pursue until after the season.