ST. LOUIS -- The new three-year deal the St. Louis Cardinals are about to complete to make Yadier Molina the highest-salaried catcher in the game is more about public perception than the team’s usual shrewd approach, but certain players -- just a few in each league -- force those kinds of mistakes.
The rules are different for franchise icons. They’re different when a player comes up in your organization, professes a love for the team and its city and becomes the face of its two most recent World Series celebrations. Molina was, by those criteria, in a class unlike Matt Holliday, who came up in Colorado, and unlike Albert Pujols, who could have sunk the entire organization if the Cardinals had matched the bloated deal Angels owner Arte Moreno gave him.
Three years of fiscal pain, in other words, is palatable if it keeps your fans happy.
Let’s dismiss, for now, whether Molina is worth an annual salary that exceeds Buster Posey’s $18.5 million -- which he reportedly will top -- based on which player is better. Posey clearly swings the more imposing bat, but Molina’s true value always has been treacherous to try to quantify. Both the Cardinals and opposing teams are convinced he is the primary reason the team’s pitching has been so consistent for more than a decade. Until last season, other teams rarely even tried to generate much offense on the bases because Molina’s throwing was so lethal.
What you can’t argue is that Molina is nearly five years older than Posey, which practically guarantees that the deal he’s about to sign will be far worse for the Cardinals than Posey’s will be for the San Francisco Giants. Five years of wear on a catcher’s knees is equivalent to 20 years on the joints of those of us who sit in chairs for a living. By the end of this season, Molina will have caught more than 15,000 major league innings.
Molina will be at least 37 by the time this contract expires. Johnny Bench was retired by that age. That’s not to say Molina won’t age as gracefully as Carlton Fisk or Pudge Rodriguez; last season’s .926 OPS after the All-Star break coupled with his inspired play in the recent World Baseball Classic suggest he might. Still, that’s a lot of money for a middle-aged catcher and, on a strictly dollars-and-cents basis, probably isn’t a wise use of resources.
The Cardinals under general manager John Mozeliak have garnered a reputation for making the prudent moves, not the popular ones. They came nowhere near matching Moreno’s offer to Pujols and made scant effort to bring Holliday back, announcing in September they would decline his 2017 option. It has served them well. Since 2004, when Molina broke in, the Cardinals rank second in the majors in regular-season wins and first in postseason wins.
Molina has a chance to become the third Cardinals Hall of Famer, along with Stan Musial and Bob Gibson, to never wear another team’s uniform, and that counts for something. When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to catch the end of Lou Brock’s career. Plenty of young Cardinals fans would have been deprived of the chance to say they saw Molina play if this deal hadn’t gotten done. Older fans would have had the displeasure of seeing him in some other team’s uniform.
This move also indicates that the Cardinals like their team better than Vegas bookmakers and statheads do. Depending which projections you read, the Cardinals are supposed to win between 72 and 82 games this year. All spring, Cardinals decision-makers have raved about the energy in camp around Dexter Fowler and the excitement from what could be a refreshed pitching rotation and a rebuilt minor-league system.
Keeping Molina around for a few more years signals the team thinks it can win now. The only victim in this -- and that’s a strong word -- is Carson Kelly. By some accounts, the best catcher in the minor leagues, Kelly looks like he’ll have to wait for his chance to be a frontline guy. Now the Cardinals have to decide whether Kelly can simmer at Triple-A or as Molina’s backup for the next few years, or whether it’s more prudent to spin him off in a trade to address another area of the club's needs.
What the Cardinals are saying with this move is that Molina in decline still is a better option than virtually any option out there and, at least for the moment, it’s hard to find much evidence to the contrary.