A constant behind the plate for the St. Louis Cardinals since 2005, Yadier Molina enjoyed a renaissance standing next to it in 2016.
After sharp offensive declines in consecutive seasons, Molina turned back time last summer. Rebutting notions he was past his prime, Molina posted a .787 OPS, his best since 2013. That included a .360 on-base percentage, a mark he has reached in only two other seasons of his 13-year career.
The veteran backstop also defied expectations with his workload. In a season immediately following two thumb surgeries, Molina caught a career-high 1218 1-3 innings. To put that feat into perspective:
• Molina’s total was more than 100 innings better than the second highest in the majors (Miami’s J.T. Realmuto caught 1113 innings last season).
• Over the past decade, Molina's 2016 innings count has been eclipsed only four times: Russell Martin (2007, 2008), Jason Kendall (2008), Salvador Perez (2014).
• Molina did it in his age-33 season. Martin did it at ages 24 and 25, Perez at 24. Incredibly, Kendall was a spry 34 years old during his marathon 2008 season. However…
• In that same season, Kendall slashed .246/.327/.324 with an OPS+ of 74. Molina managed a batting line of .307/.360/.427 with an OPS+ of 110.
Though Molina turns 35 during the upcoming season, the recent spike in his production as a hitter and his continued Ironman mentality refreshed the outlook of his career trajectory. But even with such a sterling 2016, John Mozeliak will soon have too ask himself, ‘how much longer can Molina keep this up?'
Molina’s agent, Melvin Roman, plans to address Molina’s contract status prior to Opening Day, according to a report by Jon Morosi. Though that report surfaced nearly a month ago, there has been no public update on potential negotiations between the Cardinals and Molina’s representation.
With backstop entering the final guaranteed year of the five-year, $75 million contract he signed back in 2012–and coming off his best season of the past three–now is an obvious time for him to cash in.
Ideally, Molina’s next contract with St. Louis would carry him into retirement–an arrangement beneficial to both parties. For Molina, it would be one final financial windfall earned by an illustrious playing career. For the Cardinals- in addition to the on-field production he offers- the chance to secure Molina as a fabled ‘Cardinal for life,’ maximizes the sentimental equity that escaped the organization with Albert Pujols’ departure in 2011.
Though both sides could see the benefits of getting this deal done, it won’t be as simple as it appears on the surface.
Any notion that Molina would be forced to gradually coast into retirement over the next few years has been put on indefinite hold after the summer he had. Apart from his introduction to the league in 2004, Molina has always been a workhorse behind the plate. And he thrived in 147 games last season. When negotiating a contract, however, the Cardinals have to devise an estimate for how many years Molina can feasibly last at that pace.
Was 2016 the highlight of his twilight or a sustainable benchmark for an apparently ageless catcher?
As it stands, Molina will make $14 million in 2017. For 2018, he has a mutual option worth $15 million with a $2 million buyout. It's in Molina's best interest to seek a deal as lengthy as the Cardinals are willing to dole out, but in offering guaranteed years, St. Louis must have confidence in Molina's ability to produce during them.
Would a guarantee through the 2019 season–at the end of which Molina would be 37 years old–be enough to satiate his desire to play? Knowing the type of competitor he is, it's hard to envision he would hang 'em up after three more years. But to guarantee him more than two additional years in the $14-$18 million range seems dubious.
The Cardinals can try to tack on a performance-based vesting option to the end of the extension, or offer a front-loaded contract over a longer term. The latter could allow Molina–if he's inclined to do so–to extend his playing career in a timeshare with another capable catcher.
Carson Kelly is a viable candidate. At 22, has the makeup of a major leaguer, but only converted to catching in 2014. The organization's primary concern for Kelly right now is repetitions, of which he'll get plenty as the starting catcher in Class-AAA Memphis. If his progression trends as anticipated– he's the Cardinals' No. 4 prospect according to Baseball America– Kelly will be Molina's eventual replacement in St. Louis. As Molina wanes, Kelly could begin to flourish. The Cardinals would consider that– a hypothetical catching controversy between a top prospect and possible Hall of Famer– a pretty good problem to have.
Regardless of Kelly's status, when it comes to negotiations this spring, Molina has bargaining power.
One consideration could tilt the discussion in Molina's favor. After two World Series trophies, seven division championships and a personal trophy case full of eight Gold Gloves and a Silver Slugger, Molina is inextricably linked to the franchise's run of recent success.
Convincing fans that Yadier Molina in an opposing team's uniform is an acceptable part of the business of baseball would truly be a tough sell.
Copyright 2016 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.