The Yadier Molina Dilemma


The St. Louis Cardinals have another difficult decision to make concerning a free-agent to be, catcher Yadier Molina. Redbird Rants’ Justin McClary wrote back in December that the Cardinals should act quickly to extend Molina’s contract before there is an occurrence similar to the Albert Pujols situation. Rob Rains wrote the other day, that the Cardinals may actually want to trade Molina. We also need to understand that Molina may elect to test free agency without entering into contract negotiations now because this will be his last long term contract. The best way for him to secure the largest value and longest contract could be through competitive bidding by various teams in the open market.

This is what general manager John Mozeliak needs to weigh over the next few weeks prior to spring training. There has been no indication from Molina’s camp of his thought process at this time, but typically we have seen, as was the case with Pujols, that players will shut down discussions either at the time spring training begins or once the regular season begins.

First, discussing a contract extension for Molina makes sense for the Cardinals. There is no one in their system who can step into his shoes next season. They would have to look to the free agent market or make a trade in order to replace Molina. So, what type of terms do we expect Molina to demand and what is he worth?

Rains suggests that Molina could be looking for a five-year deal worth an average annual salary of $12 million, which is what Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann will earn next season if the Braves pick up his option. McCann will make $8.5 million this season. Molina is set to earn $7 million in 2012. Let’s review a chart of the top 11 catchers sorted by WAR over the last three seasons.

First things first. Most of these statistics are hitting related. wOBA is weighted on-base average. wRAA is weighted runs above average with zero being average. wRC+ is weighted runs created plus with 100 being average. WAR per FanGraphs uses percentage of batters thrown out as a piece of WAR calculations for catchers. It isn’t the perfect way to include fielding measurements for catchers, but it is what we have now. What you need to concern yourself with is Molina’s percentage (40%) of runners caught stealing bumps his WAR number upward. Victor Martinez’s is decreased because of his poor CS%. It is easy to see that this measure actually gives a significant boost to Molina’s WAR once you look at his wRAA and wRC+ for offensive performance. The last three columns represent salaries for the particular season. If not under contract, I labeled the player as Arb (arbitration eligible,) team (under team control) and FA (free agent).

When discussing contract terms, Molina and his agent are sure to bring up the number of runs he may save due to the percentage of runners he throws out. Despite his nice offensive production in 2011, it is Molina’s work behind the plate and with the pitching staff which reflects his true value. They can also argue that some teams don’t even bother to run on him which cannot be quantified, other than comparing the number of stolen base attempts against him versus league average. A counter argument to CS% is how much it has to do with the pitcher on the mound and his ability to effectively hold runners on base.

The point is, with all these factors included, Molina is a top five catcher over the last three seasons. In 2011, he ranked T-4th in wRAA, 4th in wRC+ and 5th in WAR. So, last season his offensive numbers played a larger part in his WAR total than they did in the cumulative seasons in the chart above. Is it realistic to assume his offensive performance trends upward as he enters his 30s?

When we compare him to the salaries of the other players it is easy to dispel Joe Mauer because his salary is absurd, and Victor Martinez because he is no longer a full-time catcher, though he caught for two of the three seasons charted. We can look closely at the remaining catchers. I think we need to be careful with McCann’s potentional earnings in 2013. It is a club option for $12 million in 2013. He is not guaranteed this money. It will be interesting to see what Mike Napoli receives from the Rangers as he will surely receive a substantial raise. MLB Trade Rumors has him set to earn $9.2MM according to their projected arbitration salaries. MLBTR sees Miguel Montero earning $5.3MM in 2012 and Russell Martin, $6.7MM. Those are the closest in terms of current salary and performance to Molina.

If Molina really wants five years at $60 million, I think Mozeliak will let him walk. Rains suggests instead of letting him walk, Mozeliak may want to try and trade him. Rains also notes Molina’s displeasure over how the Cardinals handled the Pujols negotiations (they are tight friends) and his unhappiness getting in the way during the season as a part to play in dealing him. Rains lists a few teams who have younger catchers in their systems who may be ready for the bigs in 2013, and ponders whether they would trade for an experienced catcher versus wondering whether their youngster would eventually excel.

It is certainly worth looking into especially if it is known early on that Molina is definitely looking for a 5/$60MM deal. It would be even more likely if the Cardinals are not in playoff contention at the time of the trade deadline. My assumption is unless the Cardinals are way out of the running at the end of July, Molina stays. He is essential to the success of the team and if they are leading the division or wild card July 31st, or they are within striking distance, they wouldn’t be able to trade him unless they received a major league ready catcher in return. A deal like that would not make sense. The Cards would just stick with Molina if a postseason appearance seems realistic.

If he reaches free agency there are numerous teams who have plenty of cash who could show an interest in Molina. The New York Yankees are currently going year to year with Russell Martin, the Boston Red Sox have a small commitment to Jarrod Saltalamacchia for this season, the Texas Rangers will be in the same situation with Mike Napoli at the end of this season. These are just a few big money teams who could be in need. Rains, actually names the Yankees and Red Sox as potential trade partners in his article. Again, unless 2012 goes completely awry, I can’t see Molina getting traded. It would be more likely that if the Cardinals let Molina go, they would sign a much cheaper catcher to replace him or use resources in the minor league system to work a trade for a catcher.

So, how much is Molina worth on the open market and are the Cardinals going to be willing to pay the price? My guess is he is going to land somewhere in the three or four year deal range worth $9-10 million annually. He may be able to make a little more annually with a three year contract, as the total guaranteed value would obviously be less. If I were Mozeliak and I really wanted Molina, I would set a starting price of 3 years/$30 million and see where talks go from there. If he balks because of years, offer an option year. If that is not enough then possibly give him the fourth year but bring down the average annual value of the contract to $9 million.  I would try to pay him more up front when the production is likely to be superior and less at the end of the contract when it could be in decline. This way the contract is not tying up money down the line. If he says no way to that, then Mozeliak will more than most likely take his chances elsewhere, and I am not sure I would blame him.

Molina would finish a three year contract at the age of 33, a four-year contract at 34. A catcher, whose value is predominately behind the plate, should not make as much money as those who wield a strong bat (consistently) and provide average catching abilities. The offensive performance is going to outweigh the defensive performance. Regardless, any catcher at age 33/34 is going to begin to see some decline in their play both at the plate and behind it. Molina is not going to have the DH to help him and he won’t play a position on the field for the Cardinals (they are already set to juggle players) so he will continue to worn down crouching behind the plate. To me, a five year deal is not worth it for Molina. If we were talking Matt Wieters or Alex Avila maybe.

Yadier Molina is a fantastic catcher and a good hitter. He deserves a nice contract for his efforts and for what he can provide for a few seasons beyond 2012. But, the Cardinals will not go above and beyond for a catcher in his early thirties. They didn’t do it for the best hitter the game has seen over the last 11 seasons. It is the same argument from the Cardinals’ perspective. We have a guideline on how the Cardinals and Mozeliak will handle this. Let’s see if Molina’s supposed displeasure with the organization even allows negotiations to begin. The free-agent market paid immense dividends for his friend and could be Molina’s best bet if money is his desire.

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