This offseason marked five years since Albert Pujols, quite possibly the greatest Cardinal ever, turned down an incomprehensibly lucrative offer to remain a Cardinal for life in favor of a slightly more incomprehensibly lucrative offer to go elsewhere. The occasion passed without much notice, but if you’ve listened closely enough, you may have heard some doubt start to seep in at the edges of the prevailing narrative of Pujols’ departure—i.e., the largely positive one, in which the Cards made off with bucketfuls of prospects and payroll space while cutting bait on an aging star at exactly the right time. Maybe, it’s whispered, it would’ve been worth it to be able to watch an all-time great continue to rack up accolades and milestones and contribute to contending Cardinals teams, even if things would’ve gotten a bit ugly on the back end of the deal.
That’s once again a relevant question for the Cardinals, who are in the middle of having to make a series of decisions regarding three players who have formed the core of the franchise for almost a decade. The first of these, of course, resulted in the club’s borderline nonsensical refusal to engage Matt Holliday in any kind of extension talks at all, and his subsequent signing with the Yankees for chump change. That stings for some of us, and it will sting a lot more if he bounces back in the Bronx and the Cards’ outfield proves as thin as it looks, but as a player who didn’t join the Cards until age 29 and will debut for his new team at age 37, Holliday was probably always going to be the easiest of the three to let go.
Next up, though, is Yadier Molina, who could be a free agent as early as the end of this year, if either he or the club chooses not to exercise a mutual option for 2018. Drafted by the Cardinals in 2000, Molina is already the franchise’s all-time leader in games caught, a mainstay behind the plate all the way from the MV3 days through two World Series titles and the departures of Pujols and Tony La Russa and into whatever is coming next. Though his streak of eight consecutive Gold Gloves and seven consecutive All-Star nods came to an end last season, a second-half surge helped him post his best offensive numbers since 2013 while catching a career-high (and frankly insane) 1,218⅓ innings.
This is, in short, everything the Holliday decision really wasn’t. It’s the biggest call the club has had to make since Pujols, and while the dollars and years involved will pale in comparison, in some ways this feels more momentous. If a way can’t be found for a player as beloved and essential as Yadi to retire in a Cardinals uniform, maybe the economic realities of the modern game and the cruel, relentless march of Father Time just can’t be overcome.
The worst possible outcome, then, would be for an extension to be derailed not as a result of some intractable impasse but by avoidable stupidity—which is what makes the subtext of Ken Rosenthal’s story today on the subject a little concerning:
Molina needs to recognize that his age works against him, even if (and perhaps partly because) he played in a career-high 147 games last season. He also needs to recognize that if he wishes to remain a Cardinal, he likely will not surpass Buster Posey’s $18.56 million average salary, the highest of any current catcher. …
At some point the Cardinals will want to mix in catcher Carson Kelly, their top position prospect. Yet, the club also would find it difficult to justify a reduction in Molina’s $15 million salary.
So, back to the original question: What would Molina be worth on the open market?
Rosenthal has, if nothing else, a lot of well-placed sources in and around the industry, and while it’s possible he’s just speculating in a vacuum, his analysis seems awfully fixated on the question of what an extension would cost. If this narrow focus is an accurate reflection of how John Mozeliak and his staff are approaching these talks, that’s extremely discouraging.
Barring unthinkably high salary demands on Molina’s part, the price tag on an extension should be an absolute non-issue. The Cardinals are already punching well below their weight payroll-wise and have a massive new broadcast-rights deal kicking in before next season. A potential Molina extension is almost certainly going to be a two- to three-year bridge to retirement, not some long-term albatross, and in the meantime the club will be employing his heir apparent, Carson Kelly, for next to nothing.
It’s the hoped-for transition from Molina to Kelly that should factor in to this decision, albeit to a lesser extent than many seem to think. Kelly may be the real deal, but as a 22-year-old who made his Double-A debut last April, he’s a long way from banging down the door to a major-league starter’s job. There’s no harm, and probably a lot of benefit, in another two or three years of Molina and Kelly coexisting on the roster.
The one and only deal-breaker, from the Cardinals’ perspective, should be some extraordinary set of demands from Molina regarding his playing time or future role with the club. If and only if Molina is highly antagonistic toward the idea of gradually yielding to Kelly and determined to catch 150 games a year until he’s 40, the club would probably be wise to hold the line and be willing to part ways, if it came to that.
But while it’s impossible to know for sure—and Molina is nothing if not a diehard competitor—this strikes me as deeply implausible. It’s not unusual for veteran players to seek certain assurances during contract negotiations, but for Yadi to demand to remain in his current (and already fairly uncommon) super-starter role long enough to represent some kind of existential threat to Kelly’s future would be unheard of. And while navigating the transition, prior assurances or not, may prove challenging, it’s Mike Matheny’s job to handle it; the solution to his potential inability to do so isn’t to alter your personnel decisions years in advance, it’s to either help him become a more capable manager or find a new one.
All of us were sad to see Pujols and Holliday go, but the circumstances of their departures were defensible in their own ways; who knows, meanwhile, what sort of circumstances we’ll be staring down with Adam Wainwright in a year or so. There’s only one possible reason, though, for the Cardinals not to do everything they can to prolong the Pax Molina into next season and beyond, and it doesn’t seem very likely to apply—so if we once again get robbed of the chance to see a beloved franchise great retire in the birds on the bat, it’ll be an awful shame, and worth taking a long, hard look at why.