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TA 2/8: Cards Bring Molina Back for Potentially One Last Hurrah

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MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Late Monday night, the Cards announced the following transaction:

2/8/21: Re-signed C Yadier Molina to a 1-year, $9 million contract. 40-man roster at 37.

In April of 2017, Yadier Molina signed a 3-year, $60 million extension that essentially ripped up a $15 million mutual option that was tied onto an earlier 2012 contract extension. After the 2020 season, Molina was declared a free agent, and the possibility of bringing him back for 2021 has been lingering all season. For a long time, nothing moved towards a conclusion, as the market for top tier free agent catchers like J.T. Realmuto settled. After that, we went heard things ranging from Molina wanted a 2-year deal, to Molina might retire to Molina coming back to the Cards was a done deal.

Now that the deal is done and the details have been released, I’m sure there are widely diverging views about it, and it’s not my place in this brief piece to tell people how to feel. One thing to get out of the way is that it has been reported as a straight 1-year deal, no options, club or mutual and no performance incentives. All agree that Molina has become an iconic franchise Cardinal. He’s caught more games as a Cardinal than any previous Cardinal catcher, and only Stan Musial and Lou Brock have him beat as far as career games played by a Cardinal as a position player. Some folks I’m sure believe that because of that, Molina should not only have been immediately re-signed, but that it’s sacrilege to suggest that Molina wasn’t the perfect choice to come back and that he should play as much as he wants. Others perhaps feel that the Cards might have been able to use that $9 million to try to get Kolten Wong back instead. Others might believe that Molina has gotten a bit big for his britches over the years and has too much influence over manager Mike Shildt over how often he plays, causing catching prospects to not get the developmental time they need in the majors.

Molina has been outspoken about his abilities and where he believes he stands among the pecking order of catchers. During Mike Matheny’s last year on the job, Molina lashed out on social media when Matheny rested him, and he apparently still believes that he’s the best catcher in the game. Molina has ever right to feel confident. Although originally a cipher at the plate, he worked on his craft to the point where he was a very good hitter for a catcher, and a top-10 finish among catchers in DRC+ in 2018 in his age-35 season. That’s no small feat, when you consider that you would expect his offense to get worse as he ages when playing such a physically demanding position. Molina has also somehow managed to slow the reach of Father Time. From 2015 through 2018, his age-32 through age-35 seasons, Molina finished 4th, 1st, 4th and 7th, respectively in games played among catchers at a time when would would expect that number to go down significantly. And even when injuries and other ailments forced him lower on that leaderboard, he still has started almost every game that he is on the roster and available to start, getting only a handful of true days of rest over the past couple of seasons.

One thing that has not been discussed in the reports announcing the deal is whether the issue of Molina’s playing time has been broached. As I said, if Molina is not on the injured list, he expects to play basically every day. Over the life of Molina’s recently-concluded 3-year deal, Molina’s defense got worse. He was usually in the top 12 in Catcher Defensive Adjustment, the all-encompassing defensive catching metric by Baseball Prospectus. In 2018, however, he was 25th, and in 2019, he fell all the way down to 29th. In addition, in the the last two seasons, his offense has fallen to the below-average level, finishing 31st among catchers in DRC+, where he used to place much higher.

Does any of that matter? In 2018, some gnashed their teeth when they felt that Carson Kelly didn’t get enough playing time. While Kelly was a better catcher both offensively and defensively than Molina in 2019 upon his trade to Arizona, the Cards could have played Kelly more in 2018 instead of Francisco Pena when the opportunity opened up. They could have discussed the matter with Molina to force the issue, but the club just didn’t seem to care for Kelly’s defense at the time. Kelly was a legitimate catching prospect, but one that the Cards used as trade bait for one of the better 1st basemen in the game.

Andrew Knizner was described as another potential heir apparent. Instead of using him as the primary backup catcher to Molina to groom him to take over, the club signed Matt Wieters to be Molina’s caddy for the past two years. Knizner himself switched to catching from the infield, and has always been considered to be a bat-first guy. While Knizner’s bat has been a plus in the upper minors, he has not been good defensively and downright awful in framing. The only area in which Knizner has been non-negative has been his throwing.

What is my point in this ramble? The Cards probably don’t believe that Knizner is the guy to eventually take over, and even if they sincerely hope for that, they have felt that the best way for Knizner to work on getting better is not to ride the pine behind Molina, but to get regular work in AAA in 2019 and at the Alternate Training Site last season. That opinion might hold for 2020 as well. MLB has announced that there will be a 26-man roster for 2021, but that there will be no limit on the number of pitchers that a club may roster. This means that the Cards might go with a 4-man bench and a 14-man pitching staff, but at the very least, you won’t see the club carry 3 catchers to start the season. Knizner has one minor league option left, and the club has signed Tyler Heineman as a non-roster invitee to big league camp. Although Knizner actually has more MLB experience than Heineman, Heineman is 3 years older and has 4 more years of professional baseball experience. Heineman has been much better defensively in the minors than Knizner. I think there’s a non-trivial possibility that Heineman wins the backup catcher job and Knizner is sent to AAA to play every day.

Essentially, I’m fine with the Molina deal for several reasons, the first of which is that Molina isn’t blocking anybody this year. Knizner is not ready, and I’m not sure that him being in the #2 in the majors is going to get him closer to being ready than being the #1 in AAA. Spring Training is set to start on time. Although the seasons for levels below AAA is set to be delayed, the AAA season is supposed to start at it’s normal time. If Knizner is sent to AAA to start the year, he’ll play every day. If Molina gets laid up with another one of his annual injuries, there’s a chance that the club will prioritize Knizner for the playing time. Alternatively, if Knizner is named the backup out of camp, he’ll get work with the major league staff and benefit from close tutelage by Molina.

The Cards simply don’t have a catcher on hand that has proven to be better on defense than Molina is or one that seems ready to take over. The only potential downside to the deal is that the club did not go out and grab one of the other available free agent catchers that is either cheaper for the value or is projected to have a better statistical season than Molina in 2021. This relates to the 2nd reason that I’m fine with the deal, and that is the business angle from the Cards. We’re not talking about another 3-year, $20 million deal for Molina, just a 1-year engagement. As far as a “legacy contract” goes, it’s not that much of a sacrifice in terms of either years or dollars. And while Molina is neither the offensive or defensive catcher he used to be, he’s still a positive WAR player, and he has the complete trust of the both the manager and the pitching staff in terms of calling a game. That doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but it is worth something. The fans still love him, and in terms of putting butts in the seats, there hasn’t been a storyline in recent years as compelling as a Molina and Wainwright swan song.

Molina will turn 39 in July. In 2019, he was limited to 113 games due to injuries, his lowest total since 2014. He caught the COVID-19 virus last season, and has already played baseball this winter. One can only hope that Molina and Cardinal management come together and agree on a reasonable playing schedule that makes it less likely that he will fall apart in 2021. I respect the opinions of those who thought the Cards should just have let Molina go, but on a 1-year deal, this was probably the right play based on the totality of the circumstances.