At the beginning of the offseason it appeared that Molina’s free agency was truly up in the air. The Cardinals have apparently made it a priority to shed payroll for next season and they already have Andrew Knizner who could step into the starting catcher role at a much cheaper price. Due to the fact that Yadier Molina wants a two year deal, and is likely going to want a decent amount of money as well as a guaranteed starter role, it seems possible that Molina could leave in free agency.
However, it still seems likely that Molina will return to St. Louis and retire as a Cardinal. To begin with, it is hard to believe that the Cardinals will allow a Cardinal legend who has spent his entire career in St. Louis to go somewhere else. This was seemingly confirmed by Derrick Goold who reported that John Mozeliak will include an emotional/legacy aspect to the situation with Molina. Additionally, Goold also reported that Bill Dewitt Jr. said that he wants to bring back both Molina and Wainwright. This could certainly be just talk; however, considering the Cardinals history with Molina as well as the fact that it is unlikely that any other team will overpay for a catcher who wants a contract past age 40, there seems to be some truth to these comments.
Additionally, Molina himself also said in an interview with Laura Bonnelly, which was shared by Hector Gomez, that he wants to stay with the Cardinals. However, in that same interview he also shared that four other teams; the Angels, Padres, Yankees, and Mets, have all shown interest in him. While it is unsurprising that each member of this list has shown interest in Molina, it is unlikely that Molina signs with any of them. Due to the Cardinals’ and Molina’s stated interest in keeping the catcher in St. Louis, it is more likely that Molina listed these teams in order to show the Cardinals that they have competition. He likely wants to expedite the process with the Cardinals while also showing that he has leverage to demand the contract that he wants with them.
It is also possible that the Cardinals did not pick up the option on Wong’s contract in order to save money for Molina and Wainwright. It seems unlikely that the Cardinals will chase any significant free agent signings which would allow the team to use its money on the longtime Cardinal battery mates.
If the Cardinals do in fact bring Molina back, then this leaves Andrew Knizner in an uncertain role. The Cardinals would likely feel comfotable starting Knizner if Molina does not return, but if he does then Molina will likely take the vast majority of the playing time at catcher. This leaves Knizner, who will be 26 years old at the start of next season, stuck as a backup who is too advanced for Triple-A but still needs playing time in order to improve. If the Cardinals let Molina be the everyday starter and keep Knizner, then Knizner will not be a starter until he is 28 years old.
Alternatively, the team could try to work something out with Molina which allows Molina to take more days off so that he can stay healthy and Knizner can get some MLB playing time. This would likely be the ideal scenario, but if the Cardinals want to bring back Molina, and Molina is not willing to lessen his workload, then the organization might explore a trade for Knizner. This is similar to the conundrum that the team experienced when Carson Kelly reached the majors but could not get playing time behind Molina. If the Cardinals follow the same route and trade Knizner, then they are likely hoping that Ivan Herrera will be ready to take the reins from Molina after Molina retires.
The timeline might work out well if Herrera keeps performing well in the minors. However, he has played just 20 games above Single-A, so it is difficult to forecast his future this early. Regardless, despite the uncertainty, it seems likely that Molina will be back in a Cardinals uniform for the next two seasons. After that happens, it remains to be seen what the Cardinals will do with Knizner and how quickly Herrera will develop.