A St. Louis Cardinals’ All Star is entering the final year of his contract and has given the team until the end of the spring to negotiate an extension. Talk about déjà vu all over again. Granted, Yadier Molina doesn’t come close to the stature of Albert Pujols, but during his seven years with the Cardinals, he has developed into one of the best backstops in the game, not to mention one of the most valuable players on his team. So, if Molina’s pending free agency has the St. Louis front office feeling a little uneasy, you really can’t blame them.
Once thought of a defensive specialist, Molina’s offense has gradually improved over the years. However, his 2011 performance with the bat exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Entering the year, it seemed as if the catcher had plateaued around league average, but instead, he turned in a breakout season. With an OPS+ and wRC+ of 126 and 123, respectively, Molina ranked among the top offensive catchers in the game. It remains to be seen whether he can repeat that performance in 2012, but if Molina has permanently established himself as an above average hitter, his value will skyrocket. Ironically, that’s probably bad news for the Cardinals.
As much as the Cardinals would benefit from Molina’s improved offense in 2012, if the catcher continues to hit, he could price himself out of St. Louis. Even though he’ll be 30 this year, catchers who can both hit and play top defense are uncommon on the open market, so if the Cardinals let him get that far, Molina is sure to attract considerable interest. What’s more, almost every high revenue team would likely be in the mix. In addition to the Yankees and Red Sox, who do not have a long-term commitment behind the plate, the Mets and Dodgers might also be in the market for a catcher by next offseason. Even teams like the Angels, Rangers, and Cubs could be looking to upgrade at the position, so unless Molina is willing to reverse course and offer the Cardinals a home team discount, it’s hard imagine him remaining in St. Louis beyond the up coming season.
Obviously our hope is to try to find a way to keep Yadi. If that means it’s something we can accomplish in the next six weeks, that’s great. If it means he has to go to free agency, our goal would still be to retain him. But we also realize once a player gets to free agency, odds do change.” – Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, quoted by STLtoday.com, February 21, 2012
One way the Cardinals could retain Molina would be to offer him an extension before the start of the season. However, doing so comes with risk. Although Molina’s pre-2011 profile still makes him a valuable player, last year’s breakout offensive season has taken him to another level. If the Cardinals make an offer based on that expectation, they’ll assume the risk of an offensive regression. On the other hand, if they wait to see if Molina can duplicate his 2011 results, and he does, the price tag will only get higher on the open market.
In a perfect world, the Cardinals would probably be better off if Molina was just a league average offensive player, especially when you consider his strong defensive reputation is bolstered by relatively under-monetized skills like pitch blocking and framing. That kind of a player has been a key member of the Cardinals for several seasons…one the team would likely still be eager to keep. However, because of his improved offense, Molina’s days in St. Louis could be numbered.
The Cardinals clearly want to retain their catcher, but the team’s ability to negotiate a palatable extension could come down to the level of confidence Molina has in his ability to maintain his improvement at the plate. GM John Mozeliak’s job is to see if he can leverage any uncertainty, along with emotions like the desire for security and loyalty, into a discount for his team. Otherwise, he’ll be just another in a long line of bidders next winter, regardless of how well Molina hits in 2012.