Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are members of a dying breed. Since 2000, 26 players have retired to finish a 10+ year MLB career with just one team. For context, the 1980s alone saw 27 such players.
Alex Gordon became the first of the 2020s earlier this year. He, ranking 4th on the Royals’ all-time leaderboard for position player fWAR, went out with a relative whisper. The then defending world champions re-signed Gordon to a 4 year, $72 million deal in the 2015-16 offseason, a contract he largely failed to live up to as he produced just 3.4 fWAR over its lifetime. He signed back on for one more year, scraped together 0.3 wins in 2020, and that was that. The same winter Gordon signed for $72 million, Ben Zobrist left Kansas City for 4 years and $56 million from the Cubs. Zobrist ended up posting 8.2 fWAR, meaning the Royals paid $16 million more for 4.8 fewer wins.
It’s admittedly not a perfect example; re-signing Gordon, three years younger than Zobrist, was a perfectly understandable baseball move and criticizing the decision requires some degree of hindsight. Regardless, the Royals had a limited set of resources, and it was evident they were more interested in retaining Gordon’s services than Zobrist’s. You can make a statistical argument to justify this—and, given what we knew at the time, it definitely has some teeth—but the Royals were keen on re-signing Gordon at least partially for his sentimental value.
Which takes us back to Waino and Yadi. It’s December 8th and the battery currently don’t have a team, which is a sentence that feels weird to be writing. The Cardinals will probably bring both back, but that prediction doesn’t carry anywhere near the amount of certainty you would expect “Wainwright and Molina to St. Louis” to have. That’s because everyone and their mother is trying to cut payroll to offset lost revenue, and signing a pair of future red jacket wearers would take up nonzero payroll space.
You don’t need me to tell you that Wainwright and Molina are not the players they once were. As J.P. Hill noted last week, “adding” both players back onto the Cardinals’ roster boosts their overall projections by less than half a win. The math hinges on how narrow/wide you believe the gap between Molina and Andrew Knizner at catcher is, but the point stands that if Waino and Yadi return to St. Louis, it will likely be because the Cardinals passed up on other moves that would have made the 2021 team better. It’s possible we already saw a chunk of the opportunity cost come and go when the club declined Kolten Wong’s $12.5 million option.
I’m guilty as charged for being a newfangled analytics heathen. I’ve imported more data files into spreadsheets for VEB posts than I can count, all in attempt to quantify the inherently qualitative. I could have constructed and written about a model telling you exactly how much the Cardinals should be willing to pay Molina and Wainwright and exactly how that efficiency point implicates the team’s projections.
But to be completely honest, I hate the idea of watching Waino and Yadi play in a different uniform. It’s irrational, but maximizing my enjoyment as a fan and maximizing the Cardinals’ on-field success aren’t always one and the same. For reasons having little to do with baseball, I’ve had more fun watching some Cardinals teams that ultimately missed the playoffs than some that did advance. At the core of this paradox is a philosophical question about the nature of sports fandom. We choose to support certain teams and hope those teams will win, but we can never fully sever the tie between ourselves and the intangible factors that drew us to sports in the first place. Sure, it might have been a winning Cardinals team that reeled you in, but that can’t fully explain why you stuck around.
As I’m sitting here writing this, a random Yadi memory keep nagging at my mind. It’s September of 2012, and the Cardinals lead the Dodgers in the wild card standings by one game ahead of a four-game series in Los Angeles. They split the first two games and the Cardinals head into the bottom of the ninth of the third game with the lead, but Dee Gordon is wrongly called safe stealing second on what should have been the final out. (This, of course, was still a few years before challenges were implemented.) Gordon then comes around to score the tying run on a two-out, two-strike double and the Dodgers win it the next at bat. So the race for the second wild card is now tied as we begin game four. The game is tied in the bottom of the seventh, but the Cardinals haven’t scored since the first inning. Gordon enters the game to pinch run, and again he takes off for second. Molina guns him down, and there’s no question about this call. Out. Yadi pumps his fist and Dodger Stadium serenades him with boos. The tie is preserved, and the Cardinals eventually break their scoring drought to win in extra innings.
I doubt my mind would nudge me towards little moments like that one if the catcher in question wasn’t Yadier Molina. At the same time, however, I’ve watched Molina catch countless would-be basethieves. The reason that Molina vs. Gordon vignette sticks out in my memory is because of its pennant chase context. If you flip the result of that last game in LA, the Dodgers are the ones who grab the lead for the final postseason spot. Returning to our winning vs. intangible memories question, winning inevitably creates more opportunities for those moments.
And sometimes a pandemic happens and those two forces are put at odds. I don’t know what the Cardinals will do. I’m not even sure I know as a fan what I want them to do. I’ve been writing about Waino and Yadi—and their eventual departure—for years now, usually with a host of charts and graphs to back me up. Until now, it always felt like a distant possibility to discuss in the abstract.
I can’t explain why, but it feels different now.