As Yadier Molina grows closer to retirement what plans do the St. Louis Cardinals have for naming his successor behind home plate?
Yadier Molina is the greatest St. Louis Cardinals catcher of all-time. With 1544 games and counting under his belt, no player has ever worn the birds on the bat and played more games behind home plate than Yadi.
Molina made his first start in 2004 and is the heart and soul of a 12-year run that has seen the St. Louis Cardinals make the playoffs 9 times, including winning it all in 2006 and 2011. During that span, Molina made 7 All-Star appearances, won 8 Gold Gloves, 4 Platinum ones, and earned a Silver Slugger in 2013.
Many great players have come and gone in these last 12 years: Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and others. But it is Yadier Molina who led the St. Louis Cardinals to four World Series appearances and two titles. Molina is the sole common denominator of the teams who have seen so much success since ’04.
Unfortunately though, Yadi can’t play forever. At age 34, Molina is in his 13th season and he trails only A.J. Pierzynski in games caught by an active catcher. With so many miles behind him and an unfortunate series of injuries late in his career, we are beginning to see the decline of St. Louis’ beloved backstop.
Molina’s offensive peak came from 2011-2013, and since then he has failed to post an OPS above .800 in the last 3 years . Defensively he has seen a sharp decline as well. Here are Molina’s stolen bases against, caught stealing, and caught stealing percentages for the last 3 seasons:
SB CS CS%
2014: 23 21 48%
2015: 37 26 41%
2016: 42 12 22%
Despite a career defensive WAR of 20.9, Molina has posted a dWAR of just 0.6 in 2016, and it is safe to say his better days are likely behind him.
So what’s next for the St. Louis Cardinals? Molina’s contract runs for two more years, but St. Louis has a team option on the final year, and Yadi could be gone as soon as 2018. Let’s take a look at some of the internal options the Cardinals have to fill that void at the catcher spot:
After 10 years in the minors Alberto Rosario has finally cracked the big league level thanks to the injury struggles of Brayan Pena. Though he’s only had 24 at bats, he’s managed 5 hits and 1 RBI. The defense has been a struggle too: he has yet to make an error – but, in only 6 starts behind the plate and 67.2 innings caught, he’s allowed 10 runners to steal a base against him, while throwing out only 2. The St. Louis Cardinals like his energy and production as a back-up catcher and given the way Pena’s season has played out, it looks like he will be the backup going forward. A fine role for Rosario, though I doubt he fits into St. Louis’ long term plans at catcher.
The Cardinals signed Pena to a 2-year, $5.5 Million contract to back up Molina. Knee issues, however, have held Pena out all year as he has managed to play just 4 games. At 34 years old, a strong comeback isn’t to be expected and Pena is viewed strictly as a short-term back up catcher. Given the injury issues I would be surprised if they re-signed him when his deal expires.
Carson Kelly is a 22-year-old catcher drafted 86th overall by the St. Louis Cardinals back in 2012. Despite his age, he has almost 5 full professional seasons under his belt as he has tried to develop his bat down in the minors. With well over 1000 minor league at-bats, his career average is an underwhelming .249, and although he won a minor league gold glove last year, he posted a dismal average of .219.
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There is hope for Carson’s bat though: Through 87 games this year in both Springfield and Memphis, Kelly has raised his average to .294 and he is on pace for a career-high OPS of .745. Kelly played his last 23 games in Memphis, his first AAA stint, and is batting .313. His progression means Kelly will likely get an audition for the role sometime soon. The question is: Can his bat translate at the big league level?
Should the Cards choose to look elsewhere for help in either 2018 or 2019 they will find that the free agent pool isn’t all too deep at the catcher position. Yasmani Grandal could be available in 2019, but he would be 30 years old, and likely looking for a large long-term contract. It looks like a lot of pressure rests on Carson Kelly’s young shoulders.
No one can ever truly replace Molina, but Kelly is a fine defensive player, and all he has to do is exceed the limited offensive expectations.
I’m looking forward to watching Kelly’s growth but I’m in no rush to say goodbye to #4. He has been the face of what is arguably the most successful era in the organization’s history. Let’s hope Kelly has some huge feet because he has some legendary shoes to fill.