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Yadi’s Last Ride (Well, Probably)

A franchise icon is walking away. Next year. Probably.

St Louis Cardinals v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Yadier Molina will be a Cardinal in 2022. This should come as a shock to no one, and probably not even a modest surprise. The writing has been on the wall for some time now, that Yadi wanted to come back, the club wanted him back, and the fans would not forgive the club if he didn’t come back. (The Venn Diagram of those last two points is basically just a single circle; the Cardinals are worried about attendance, and the types of fans the organisation is hoping to fill the stands with are, mostly, the exact type of fan who posts angry missives to the void on Twitter about Yadi being a Cardinal For Life and all that.)

Not too long ago, speaking of Twitter, I saw a post from someone, I really don’t recall who, about the fact that the Cardinals did absolutely nothing at the trade deadline for Adam Wainwright and Yadi, two of the greatest Cardinals of their or anyone’s lifetimes. How it was a betrayal, an abandonment, a dereliction of duties. And in a way, I can sympathise with that point of view. This season has certainly not been the one I was hoping for, and I’m sure that goes double for the men actually wearing the uniforms. It felt like there was so much reason for optimism this past offseason, when the Cards were acquiring star third basemen for pennies on the dollar and the whole of 2021 was stretched out before our eyes. Then the season started up, and everything seemed fine, right up until the moment it didn’t, and it feels like all the air has gone out of this particular balloon. It doesn’t feel like a good first impression on the guy with the opt-outs coming, and it certainly doesn’t feel like the right way to send a couple of legends off into the sunset.

But now, of course, Yadi is not riding off into the sunset, and as well as Waino has pitched in 2021, I can’t imagine he will be either. In the case of Wainwright, it makes sense; he has now completely recaptured his old greatness, at least in a late-career, beguiling form. No, he’s not quite the dominant force he was in that 2009-’14 era, when he carried several pitching staffs almost on his own. He is, however, the very best version of himself he can be at nearly 40 years old; certainly, he is far, far better than I would have ever expected given the trajectory he seemed to be on a couple years back. Adam Wainwright at 40 years old is very likely still one of the best five starters the Cardinals can field, as astounding as that sounds to say. He is currently on pace to put up something like four wins above replacement, and that plays on pretty much any team. One day he will break down, and then he will be gone. But it doesn’t seem like that day is today.

Yadier Molina is, however, a different story. In 2021, Yadi has come to the plate 369 times, and has posted a .259/.304/.375 batting line, which translates to an 86 wRC+. Now, for the record, that 86 wRC+ is not actually terrible for a catcher, particularly one who is of the defensively-excellent tribe. We’ll get back to that in a bit, though.

Yadi’s last year as an above-average hitter was 2018. That was also his last year being an above-average player overall. He was a great or near-great hitter in 2016, but his last truly great season was 2013, the end of that six-year run that saw him take his place as arguably the best catcher in baseball, or at least in close competition with Buster Posey, depending on the exact timeframe you choose. He was magnificent in 2012 and ‘13, and really should have won an MVP award one of those two seasons, I think. But that was a long time ago, and Molina has not been that player for quite a while now.

We know catcher defense is tough to quantify, even as much attention has been paid. Yes, we have framing data, and we can even draw up decision matrices to try and evaluate pitch sequencing, but can we ever really get to the bottom of the psychological effect that catcher-pitcher rapport has? If a pitcher believes he can bounce a curve in the dirt without worrying it will get past the catcher with a man on third, how much more effective does that actually make that curveball? Those things we probably won’t ever know, even if it seems like it should be mostly rolled up in catcher ERA. Catching is as much art as science, and as much therapy session as art. By most accounts, Molina has always excelled at that squishy stuff, the hard-to-quantify stuff, the pitcher relationships and the shepherding that goes on, especially with young guys just getting their feet wet in the major leagues.

Here’s the thing, though: by the numbers we do have, Yadi is no longer a great defender, or even a particularly good one. He’s still great at shutting down the running game, perhaps the most enduring part of his legend, but his pitch-framing, elite in the early days of that data set, has dropped all the way into negative numbers this season. He is no longer the automatic blocking machine he once was behind the plate. And where once pitchers came up and were expertly shepherded through early growing pains, the arms of the past few years seem to have struggled to get over the hump, even as we still hear the public pronouncements about trusting Yadi implicitly.

The point is this: Yadier Molina at 39 years old is no longer a great player. There is a reasonable question to be asked about whether he’s even a good one anymore. And yet, he will be back in 2022, ready to get himself into the lineup way too often once again, ready to suck up all the air in the room. This is how it goes with franchise icons, nearly always. It appears now that Yadi is serious about making this his last go-round; he has begun to talk about putting on the red jacket, and he’s talking about a farewell tour. I’m sure it will be a grand final spin through the league; we’ve seen Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and David Ortiz have very nice sendoffs the past several years, and Yadi very much fits into that mold. This is a franchise icon for one of the real prestige franchises in the game, and I would assume there will be plenty of ovations and funny gifts from the likes of the Brewers and Cubs, whose own recent histories have featured a fair amount of Molina. I do wonder what his sendoff in Cincinnati will be like, though.

So the farewell tour appears to be set, and the Cardinals will soon be looking for a new franchise catcher. But the Yadi drama of the last several years cannot just be dropped so easily. There’s a reason Carson Kelly is putting up a 123 wRC+ in Arizona instead of St. Louis, and it’s the presence of Yadier Molina. It’s easy to say that the Cards haven’t had a bunch of top-flight catching prospects knocking down the door, and so Yadi has been the best answer all along, but it is equally relevant to say that Yadi has, instead, been the reason the Cardinals have not had those prospects, that the presence of Molina has kept the franchise from prioritising the position, and the one guy they did try to develop into the heir apparent turned out to be, well, Carson Kelly. You don’t often find the answer to a question you aren’t asking.

It’s not easy to steer your franchise ship in a completely different direction, and it’s harder still when you have players like Molina and Wainwright at the ends of their careers, silently (and sometimes not so silently), demanding that the organisation take full advantage of their presence, the fanbase clamouring for a return to the glory days, when in reality the glory days are harder to get back to because there are players past their own glory days occupying roster spots. It is not a coincidence that very few farewell tours for great players take place in the midst of playoff chases.

But, again, this is how it always goes. The icon wants to hold on, feels he can still contribute, believes a return to his best days is just one swing adjustment away. The fans do not want to waste the time they have left with their hero, and the franchise is obliged to push chips in they perhaps cannot afford to spend to try and make that happen. Long relationship do not end easily, even when both parties are ready to simply move on. No, you don’t love each other anymore, but neither of you particularly wants to let go of that neat coffee table you got on vacation ten years ago. Entanglements lead to complications, and the longer the entanglements the more knotted up it can all become.

The 2021 season was supposed to be a transitional year. Contracts falling off the books, young talent beginning to make waves at the big league level, clarity beginning to emerge for the picture of 2022 and beyond. Then came the Arenado deal, and the high hopes for the season. Now we have at least one farewell tour on tap for ‘22, and most likely two, as I would think Yadi and Waino would prefer to go out together, continuing to move up in the history books of longest-tenured batteries until the very end. Does that preclude the Cardinals from improving the team this offseason? Of course not. But it does showcase, once again, the two masters this franchise has tried to serve so hard over the past half-decade or so. It is hard to build the best team possible while holding on to the past, while serving icon demands and fan sentimentality. Hard decisions are even harder when you simply rope off certain sections of your roster and acknowledge nothing can be done there, regardless of what’s best for the team.

Yadier Molina will be a Cardinal in 2022. Adam Wainwright likely will be as well. Hopefully it goes well, and they both get their farewell tours, and the team is good and exciting and we’re watching meaningful baseball a year from now as the careers of these franchise icons come to the clearing at the end of the path. Hopefully we see the Red Sox in 2016 instead of the Yankees in 2013. And I’m sure none of us will be happy to see the ends of those icons’ careers, and the Cardinal roster will not look right in 2023, when the name Molina no longer graces the lineup daily. But it’s worth wondering how different things might have been the last few years had the Cardinals moved on earlier, had Molina walked away from the game the first time he started talking about it. Like everything else about the Cardinals these last few years, Yadi signing this last contract and heading out for his farewell tour tastes bittersweet. It will be marvelous to see him back behind the plate again for a nineteenth season. I just wonder if it will be a good one, and if it will be a happy farewell when the day finally comes.