Over-devotion to franchise icons is a St. Louis Cardinals sin
The St. Louis Cardinals have a history of improving after letting go of former stars. They may have to do it again with Yadier Molina.
If you’re a Yadier Molina fan who believes the Cardinals should do “whatever it takes” to bring back the 38-year free-agent catcher, then you’re not going to like this post.
Yes, Molina is a nine-time All-Star, a nine-time Gold Glove winner, and a certified St. Louis icon. Yes, it would be good to have him back in 2021. But the price has to be right, for the Cardinals as well as Molina, who reportedly wants a two-year deal. Massively overpaying elderly fan favorites is a Redbird tradition that must stop.
In fact, a case could be made that the Cardinals should resist signing Molina and 39-year-old Adam Wainwright, his longtime battery mate who is also a free agent. This franchise has a history of getting better after waving bye-bye to former stars. Consider:
• In 1963, the great Stan Musial retired after 22 years with St. Louis. The next year the Cards improved by nine games and won their first World Series since 1946.
• Hall of Famer Lou Brock retired after the 1979 season and Hall of Famer Ted Simmons was traded after 1980. In 1982, the Cardinals won their first World Series since 1967.
• Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith was benched by new manager Tony La Russa in 1996. The team improved by 22 games that year and made the postseason for the first time since 1987.
Were Musial, Brock, Simmons and Smith holding the team back? Not necessarily. But there comes a time when a team must move on from the oldsters and move forward with younger players. Desperately clinging to long-time icons is a vice, if not a curse.
The salaries required to bring back Molina and Wainwright are just part of the problem. The bigger issue with those two and Matt Carpenter, due to make an obscene $16.5 million in 2021, is how their presence could hamstring manager Mike Shildt.
What if Molina, projected to hit .252 with a .307 on-base percentage by baseball-reference.com, performs below that mark and becomes an offensive liability? Would Shildt bench him? Would he move him back in the order and have him bat seventh, eighth or — if the designated hitter returns to the National League — ninth in the order? I’d be surprised. Molina has rarely batted lower than sixth despite desultory on-base percentages (.312, .314, .312, .303 the past four years) and a propensity for grounding into double plays (seven times he has finished in the NL’s top-10 in that category). Making Molina bat seventh or lower could be perceived as an insult to the Cardinals legend.
What if Andrew Knizner or another catcher is playing well? Would Shildt sit Yadi two or three times a week to make room for another? I doubt it. Molina is a fierce competitor who wants to play every day. And benching the venerable catcher could create a reprise of the 1996 tensions that arose when La Russa chose Royce Clayton as the starting shortstop over Ozzie Smith and the Wizard fumed all summer.
Similar issues could arise with Wainwright. While he is coming off a fine year (5-3, 3.15 ERA, 1.051 WHIP), his previous four seasons resulted in ERAs of 4.62, 5.11, 4.46 and 4.19. The Cards should sign him if they can, but you have to wonder what will happen if Wainwright gets rocked start after start. Shildt showed his reluctance to bench a fan favorite when he continued to play Carpenter a year ago. The infielder had a rotten year in 2019 (-0.1 WAR) yet appeared in 50 of 58 Cardinals games this past season, despite hitting .186 with a .640 OPS.
As a fan, I want Molina and Wainwright back. But I’m not sure that signing the catcher to a two-year deal is the best business decision, plus there might be something in what sports columnist Bill Simmons calls “The Ewing Theory.” After Patrick Ewing tore his achilles tendon during the 1999 playoffs, the Knicks actually played better and wound up in the NBA Finals. Simmons lists other cases as examples, including the 1999 Tennessee Volunteers winning a national championship the year after Peyton Manning left for the NFL and the 2000 Mariners improving after trading Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr.
While Molina at 38 isn’t a superstar on the Ewing-Manning-Johnson-Griffey Jr. level, his star power could prove a detriment to Cardinals hopes in ’21 and ’22. As much as we admire what the catcher has accomplished, decisions should be made on what he is likely to do in the next year or two. It hurts to say it, but a stubborn, diminished Molina could be an albatross this team can’t afford.