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Cardinals should not sign Yadier Molina to a contract extension

We at VEB are trying to make up our minds on the Yadier Molina contract question

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Yadier Molina is potentially in the last year of his contract, with a mutual option at $15 million for the 2018 season. If Molina has a poor, but not terrible season, that option might get picked up, but if Molina has a good season, he will likely decline his end and become a free agent. While there is an opportunity now to work out something longer term, there is considerable risk in signing Molina to an extension, and the Cardinals are probably better off pushing the decision down the road.

On Saturday, Ben Markham wrote on this very same subject and took the opposite viewpoint. Given Molina’s positive 2016 season, Ben took a look at how Molina would be valued given a decent season in 2017, and believed an extra two years for around $20 million per season was a fair offer for the Cardinals longest-tenured player and current face of the franchise.

Given Molina’s value to the team over the years as well as many soft skills that might not go into a WAR-value like system, there’s an argument to be made that even a $20 million per year offer might undervalue what Yadi brings to the table. If the Cardinals extended Yadi, it would not be something to get upset about. It is a defensible move. It’s not the move I would make, however, and my reasoning has little to do with Carson Kelly, one of the best, if not the best catching prospect in baseball.

I’m not the only one who feels this way, though neither Carson Kelly nor money play a big role in my thoughts. As for Kelly, he is a very good prospect and could be close to the majors, but he hasn’t forced his way there just yet. Kelly is just 22 years old, has fewer than 400 plate appearances above High-A and only 140 above Double-A. Right now, both ZiPS and Steamer project Kelly to be 25-30% below average with the bat at the major league level.

Kelly could spend the next two seasons in the minors, spend one year caddying for Molina and take over full-time duties in 2020 at the age of 25. That probably isn’t ideal nor is it realistic, but he would still be one of just 26 catchers over the previous 30 years to play a full season as catcher at the age of 25 or under. That he has advanced so quickly is good news, and he should be ready whenever he is called upon whether it is this year or next, but Carson Kelly doesn’t need to factor into whether to give Yadier Molina an extra year or two.

As to the money, certainly it plays some role, but it is more of a minor issue. The biggest problem with extending Yadier Molina is that you get a lot of downside with a contract guarantee, but there is little upside to be gained. If Yadier Molina repeats his very good 2016 season next year, he is probably in line for a multi-year deal. Molina will turn down his portion of the mutual option, and then the Cardinals can and should make him a qualifying offer.

This year the qualifying offer amount was $17.2 million after being $15.8 million the year before. It’s reasonable to expect that the qualifying offer will be around $18 million next season. The new CBA lessens the penalty for signing free agents with qualifying offers attached, but they do still exist. In addition, if the Cardinals still felt strongly about Molina’s skills, they could push a two-year offer close to $50 million and guarantee themselves a first round draft pick if he signed elsewhere. Guaranteeing anywhere close to $50 million right now, when you could almost certainly have him for that much at the end of the season or gain a first round draft pick takes on too much risk.

If Molina has just an okay year, he might well decide to take the qualifying offer and then the Cardinals have him on a one year deal, which is great. There is of course the other option, that at age 34, Molina’s 2016 was a blip in the middle of a decline. If he gets considerably worse in 2017 or suffers some injuries that rob him of his skills on offense or defense, that mutual option might look pretty good for Molina. Only a disaster could cause the Cardinals not to exercise their end, and while unlikely, that possibility does exist.

Yadier Molina is still a very important part of the Cardinals for this season, and potentially beyond, but for a 34-year-old catcher, it might not be wise to invest in ages 35 and 36 before 34 even happens. Over the last 30 years, only six catchers have had 400 plate appearances and put up even two wins above replacement in an age-35 season. Before the Cardinals guarantee any money for those years, it makes sense to see what happens at age-34. There is little risk to losing him if they want him back after this year with a good deal of downside to guaranteeing money if he has another 2015 season instead of the one he had last year.