Looking ahead to the post-Yadier Molina era in St. Louis
After being pulled from Tuesday’s contest with what was described as upper back tightness, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was back in the lineup on Wednesday as the Indians’ Corey Kluber eyed a no-hit bid as late as the seventh inning.
Although he didn’t even miss a full game, Molina’s injury raises an interesting question for Cardinals fans moving forward: what’s next if the longtime St. Louis backstop goes down long-term? Is there an in-house option to replace him? What trade options are available? Or, as I’m sure readers will point out to me: is this even worth a discussion?
In short, probably not. Molina has proven himself to be one of the most durable and productive catchers in not only the National League, but all of Major League Baseball. There’s no reason to think that back tightness will become anything more serious nor that it’s something that will sideline him in the future.
That being said, it’s worth looking toward the post-Molina era. Odds are, his replacement hasn’t even been drafted yet. He’s just 32 years old and is under contract through the 2017 season after signing the massive 10-year, $96.5 million extension a few years back. But as all baseball fans know, players don’t always remain effective for the duration of their contract and sometime, plans change.
Over the course of his big league career, Molina is averaging around 120 games per season, putting up a .284/.338/.401 slash-line over the 1,300-plus games. While his offensive accolades are outstanding in and of themselves (good enough for a Silver Slugger in the 2013 season), his work behind the plate is what has made him one of the most beloved players in Cardinals history.
His seven-straight Gold Glove awards tie Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez as the only catchers to win that many consecutive defensive honors and his work with the endless assembly-line-like system of young pitching makes him invaluable to the organization and, quite frankly, near-impossible to replace.
Joining Molina on the big league roster is Tony Cruz, a career .226 hitter as the Cardinals’ backup catcher. At 28 years old, he’s no longer a baby-faced rookie and his offensive contributions are nowhere close to being adequate. He’s not a starting catcher on a quality team and, in my opinion, can’t be considered anything more than a stopgap measure moving forward.
When looking at MLB.com’s top 20 prospects in the Cardinals organization, one catching prospect made the cut in number 11-ranked Carson Kelly, a former pitcher-turned-backstop who was drafted three years ago out of high school in Oregon.
Kelly, just 20 years old, was born in Chicago and spent his first season in professional baseball with the Rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals back in 2012. In three (and change) seasons in Minor League Baseball, he’s played third base for three years and caught for just over one. The back-and-forth in terms of positions probably hasn’t helped his work at the plate, but he’s never put together an overly-impressive year offensively.
According to his MLB.com scouting report, the Cardinals think highly of Kelly’s receiving skills, which, as mentioned, are still a major work-in-progress.
"Solely a third baseman in his first two years as a pro, Kelly began making the conversion to catcher in instructional league. He has the hands and arm strength to get the job done behind the plate. The early returns were encouraging enough for Cards manager (and former Gold Glove catcher) Mike Matheny to sign off on inviting Kelly to big league camp."
Now comparing any player to Molina is a tall task, let alone a 20-something kid who is still learning the ropes as a catcher. Whether it’s Kelly or some still-to-be-determined prospect yet to be drafted who assumes the reins from Yadi in a few years, the whole point of this piece is to at least think toward the coming years when the face of the franchise is no longer the dominant player he is today.