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The complicated free agency of Molina

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The situation is a lot more complicated than people are willing to acknowledge.

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game Three Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

One of the consequences of a series of trades that have not gone well for the Cardinals is that it has seemed to turn Cardinals fans fully against the Cardinals management. This is perhaps a case of me being too online, but it seems like Cardinals fans as a whole will blame them for every perceived bad move and some moves that aren’t even bad at all. Everything now lacks nuance. Everything is either Bill Dewitt or John Mozeliak’s fault.

Case in point: the situation with Yadier Molina. The Molina situation is infinitely more complicated than some people are making it out to be. Yadi is a Cardinals legend, we need to re-sign him now. Sounds easy. It isn’t. I’ll use an example. Admittedly it is his brother, Bengie who said this, but far too many people agreed with his statement.

This was said a few days ago. I don’t know if Bengie is misinformed or being intentionally misleading here, but he should know why Yadi hasn’t been signed yet. Because his 2020 salary was $20 million, Yadi could not be re-signed for less than 80% of that salary for 2021. Unless he reaches free agency and then he can sign for whatever number. Apart from giving him a 2 year, $32 million deal, which would be insane, Yadi was always going to reach free agency. And free agency started today.

There’s also the matter that - how do I put this delicately? - Yadi thinks he’s a much better player than he is. At this point in his career I mean. He thought he was snubbed by not being nominated for a Gold Glove. He wasn’t. I’m not going to speak to the three people nominated and compare them to Yadi, but I do not believe he was one of the top three defensive catchers in the NL.

Then there’s his offense, perfectly calibrated to be overrated. He doesn’t walk and he has no power. But he has a semi-respectable looking average, so one could make the mistake of thinking he’s not a bad hitter anymore. He is. Ignore 2020. He was a bad hitter last year. He’s been a bad hitter for his last 608 PAs (86 wRC+), is now 38, and is projected as a bad hitter.

Now, player has a high opinion of his own playing ability, news at eleven. Most players in this position aren’t legends though. People don’t expect them to come back at any cost. The market crashes that player’s reality back down to earth and they sign for the best available offer. And maybe that will happen here. But, you know, that’s not going to happen on the first day of free agency. If Yadi thinks he can get a $10 million a year deal for multiple years elsewhere, I think he will be sorely mistaken.

There are other issues with this as well. Yadi thinks he should play 150 games a year at catcher. I’m not suggesting Yadi wouldn’t start on other teams. But to use a broad truism in sports: Yadi would be acceptable starter on a bad team, a backup on a good team. If you ignore the name and simply take expected performance, a good team that’s looking for improvements would look at catcher. Which is not to say the Cardinals should move on, but he should definitely be in a timeshare, and not have the workload of an in-his-prime Jason Kendall.

Maybe you don’t believe in Andrew Knizner. And that’s fine. But he should actually play like MLB backup catchers play at the very least. We can’t actually find out what he is until he plays. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have Carson Kelly backup Yadi instead of Matt Wieters? What’s the downside here? Best case, you learn Knizner should start. Worst case, you just move on from Knizner. 20-25 extra games started by Knizner instead of Yadi isn’t likely to matter, except it would give us more information on Knizner, and keep Yadi fresh and healthy.

Yadi’s presence is actively harmful to the development of Cardinals catching prospects. As long as he’s here, they might as well not have catching prospects. I’m not saying Kelly is a huge loss or anything so it’s less about that or more about the principle of just never playing your catching prospects. It’s seriously absurd how little Kelly played while he was here. And it’s absurd how little Knziner has as well. Any future contract with Yadi has to come with the understanding that he will probably play around 100 games.

I knew this next contract for Yadi was going to be complicated last year. And then the pandemic ruined every team’s finances. The Cardinals declined Kolten Wong’s surefire option for 2021 in part because they wanted to pay Molina. If the pandemic did anything, it severely lowered the market for Yadi’s services. What teams are out there exactly who are clamoring for a 38-year-old catcher who wants to play everyday? And among those teams, how many of them are willing to give him $10 million? Or even $5 million?

So you’re telling me that of the many, many, many teams who are cutting costs for 2021, the money they choose to spend is on Molina and not, say JT Realmuto or the many probable bargains available on the market? Molina isn’t even among SI’s top 50 free agents. Now that’s a real snub. (I honestly think they may have forgot he was a free agent). Whether you think he’s a top 50 free agent or not though, he’s certainly on the lower end of the list, and few of those comparably ranked players are getting much.

So it might not be immediately evident that the Cardinals will sign Molina. There will be rumors he’ll sign with someone else. I’m personally skeptical. When I imagine what the top number to re-sign Molina’s services BDJ will be willing to pay, I struggle to think of another team that would top that. Mostly because struggle to think of teams who would pay him over $5 million. Because this offseason is going to be ugly.

So I really think it might take a little time. Molina will ask for a certain price, the Cardinals know he can’t get that anywhere else, eventually, they come to an agreement. I think the Cardinals are hoping that they can sign Molina, Wainwright, and maybe another guy for not much more than Wong’s $12.5 million option. Jedd Gyorko was just passed by the Brewers for $3.5 million. Just to use one example. Or maybe Wong re-signs at a reduced price (I doubt it). But I do think that’s the ultimate goal of the Cards. They just aren’t saying that because they know they may have to pay a large portion of that to Molina, to the point where there won’t be that third signing.

So in essence there are two roadblocks to signing Yadi quickly. The first is that his agent and the man himself probably hold his value at a higher level than publicly available statistics. And I imagine the privately held statistics, while higher than the publicly available, are still not quite at where Yadi values himself. The second is the free agent market is going to suuuuuuck, so I think there may be some time where Yadi realizes the full extent of what that means.

But that will all be glossed over and the narrative will be that the Cardinals are doing Yadi wrong by not signing him immediately, no doubt pushed forward by his brother and probably Yadi himself eventually if this lasts long enough. And it’ll be easy enough to get Cardinals fans to buy it because, well they just rejected Wong’s option, which was a much more simple situation. So the Cardinals are cheap narrative is already in full swing and what they won’t pay Cardinals legends?

Oh and here’s my assumption, if you’re wondering. Wainwright will wait for Yadi to sign. Which sucks because they absolutely need him next year, but what you gonna do. And if Yadi signs with a different team for some reason, Wainwright will retire. Unless that team is the Braves. So that’s my prediction there. Yadi will not be signed for a bit because of factors I said above and Wainwright won’t because he’s waiting on Yadi. Wainwright will go to his hometown team or the Cards but I honestly think he just retires otherwise.

I’ll admit I’m a bit more detached on this situation than your average Cardinals fan because I... don’t particularly care if Yadi leaves. I know that makes me a bad Cardinals fan. But look: this stuck in neutral at catcher thing the Cards are in seems endless. They can’t plan for their future because their future never plays. Yeah sure who cares if Knizner doesn’t play, but Ivan Herrera is not far behind, and that will be a real problem. I sure as hell don’t want to go through the Carson Kelly experiment with Herrera and it sure feels inevitable right now.

I can see how this post could come across badly, and if Yadi himself reads this, he is going to “own” me online. Really looking forward to that. (I don’t actually think he’ll read this) But honestly, this is one of the more complicated signings the Cards have, only made more difficult by the pandemic. And I hope people realize that. Be patient. Yadi will still probably sign with the Cardinals.