Yadier Molina is the face of the franchise. Before Adam Wainwright, Matt Carpenter and Carlos Martinez, there was Yadi. He broke into the major leagues with St. Louis way back in 2004, and it was as a Cardinal that he became a household name to baseball fans, one of the greatest catchers of his generation.
As he claimed his eight consecutive Gold Gloves from 2008-2015, Molina donned the birds on the bat. During each of his seven consecutive All-Star appearances, the STL appeared prominently on his cap. For much of the Cardinals’ incredible run since the turn of the century, Molina has been a constant.
It’s been an amazing career–perhaps even worthy of Cooperstown–but Molina doesn’t think in those terms; there’s nothing past tense about his playing career. Molina caught more innings than he ever had in 2016, and ranked eighth in the National League in batting average (.307). At 34 years old, Molina feels he has plenty left in the tank. His current contract status, with a mutual option for the 2018 season, is not sufficient to get him to the end of his career. Molina wants an extension.
And the Cardinals, assuredly, would love to be able to give him one. But as fans of the franchise learned back in 2011 with the abrupt departure of Albert Pujols, the unthinkable doesn’t necessarily mean the impossible. The thought of Molina in an opposing uniform, managing someone else’s pitching staff on a daily basis, fighting for a different city’s postseason life down the September stretch run–does it give you a headache? For fans that can’t fathom fallout between Molina and the Cardinals, recent rumblings on his contract negotiations have probably induced some nervousness.
The comments came from Yadier’s brother, former major league catcher Bengie Molina, on MLB Network Radio. In explaining Yadier’s mindset with an expiring deal, Bengie caused a stir among fans that would love nothing more than to see a blank check offer to one of St. Louis’ most beloved figures.
“That’s where he grew up,” Bengie said of his brother Yadier. “He always keeps telling me. ‘I want to retire a Cardinal.’ But just remember this: Yadier Molina is not Bengie Molina. Yadier Molina is not Jose Molina. You will find out, he doesn’t take crap from anybody, and if he has to leave, he ain’t afraid, man. He’s not afraid.
“He said ‘Hey listen, I battled my butt off for you guys all these years. I played day games after nights games. I did all I could to win. I don’t do anything else other than playing for the Cardinals. I live for you guys. Now it’s time for you guys to show up. Now it’s time for you to show me. But if you don’t show me, I’m not afraid. I’ll go free agent and get my money somewhere else.’”
After the interview gained traction because of the implications of his words, Bengie Molina clarified his comments in a different radio interview with Brian Stull of STL Baseball Weekly.
“It’s only strictly my opinion,” Bengie Molina said. “I never talk to Yadi about negotiations, that’s very private. I want people to know that. That’s very, very private. I don’t even know if they’re in talks or if they have talked or whatever. People need to know that. This is just me as a fan. Me. Me, Bengie Molina as a fan.”
When Yadier returned to Cardinals camp after the WBC, Bengie's comments proved prescient. The Cardinal catcher told reporters he's not afraid to test free agency, and has no interest in discussing an extension once the season starts.
It would make sense that Molina wants to be paid handsomely in his next contract. Ideally for Molina, the deal would be lengthy enough to carry him into retirement as a Cardinal. But St. Louis has Carson Kelly waiting in the wings as one of the top catching prospects in baseball. The organization would love to see Molina continue last season’s breakneck pace for years to come, but it has to be realistic about expectations.
Blunt though it may be, Kelly’s presence gives the team more leverage in negotiations with Molina: from a baseball perspective, Molina can’t force the Cardinals into a corner. If worst comes to worst–and the Cardinals are truly confident in Kelly’s future–the franchise could move on without a significant drop off at the position. There’d still be the inevitable meltdown from large pockets of the fan base if the Cardinals allowed Molina to take his talents elsewhere, but at least the roster would be secure.
Molina is a savvy businessman–it’s only reasonable for him and his representation to hold out for the best possible compensation. They likely believe several clubs would be glad to pay for Molina’s current level of production and the winning experience he brings to the table.
To the benefit of the Cardinals, those teams aren’t bidding on their franchise catcher today. At the earliest, Molina could nix his side of the 2018 mutual option, and become a free agent after this season. While Molina wants the extension before that happens–he and John Mozeliak plan to meet after the conclusion of the World Baseball Classic–it could be prudent for the Cardinals to wait.
Allowing Molina to enter free agency before resigning him would invite the legitimate risk that he takes a better offer elsewhere, which would lead to not-unreasonable criticism that the tight-fisted Cardinals were too cheap to secure a franchise player for his whole career. It would be a gamble, but it could pay off for the Cardinals.
Rather than blindly oblige to the deal Molina wants (Does he want three more years? Four? How long does he want to keep doing this every summer?), the Cardinals could allow him to play out 2017 before making any decisions. St. Louis wants to avoid giving Molina a lengthy deal that immediately looks foolish if the catcher declines considerably in 2017.
The flip side of that coin: If he replicates his successful performance from last year, Molina stands to cash in. There’d be no shortage of outside bidders, and to avoid a disgruntled fan base, the Cardinals could be compelled to beat any other offer to ensure Molina stays. That scenario is the dream for Molina. If St. Louis decides to wait, and essentially bets against its own player, Molina's success could turn into a nightmare for the Cardinals if they don’t pony up. In theoretically waiting to extend him, the Cardinals would be betting on a regression to the mean–less of a superhuman campaign by Molina could dip his value and allow the Cardinals to easily beat the market to keep him around.
If Molina ends his career anywhere but St. Louis, it means the Cardinals made a serious mistake. But if deep down, Mozeliak feels Molina’s best days are behind him, waiting him out until the offseason–probably his riskiest course of action–might also be his best.
Copyright 2017 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.