It feels wrong, but this winter the St. Louis Cardinals should let Yadier Molina walk and use that money in other spots to help the team.
For the entirety of my memory of watching the St. Louis Cardinals, there has been one man behind the plate. One player, revered as the best in the sport, the best catcher I will likely get to watch in person in a Cardinals uniform.
Growing up, Yadier Molina was larger than life to me as a young Cardinals fan. After Albert Pujols left after 2011, Molina and Adam Wainwright have remained icons. These two players have defined the majority of the past two decades for the sports scene of St. Louis.
While the memories and legacy that Molina has created in St. Louis will never leave, there is an increasing chance that he might. If there is one player that has stayed loyal to the Cardinals, it has been Molina. Both he and fans have never believed that they would ever see him in a different jersey.
Something that Molina has always been loved for in St. Louis and hated for among other fanbases is his competitive edge. He feels like he’s the best catcher in baseball and when he was in his prime, that edge kept him in that spot. However, things have changed now.
For any 38-year-old catcher who has caught more innings than anyone else in the world the past 17 years, it is no surprise that production drops off. The issue is that Molina still expects the same playing time regardless of his production.
The Cardinals were fine to give Molina the playing time he demanded in 2020, but now with Molina in free agency for the first time in his career, the Cardinals clearly haven’t been so willing to give him the contract he is asking for.
We have heard that Molina’s camp has believed the Cardinals’ offer was ‘ridiculous,’ and despite both sides reiterating multiple times that both sides want to get back to each other, the longer this goes on the more likely it becomes that Molina is gone.
The other thing that is clear is that the longer this goes on, the longer the Cardinals won’t do anything else. John Mozeliak has mentioned multiple times that figuring out Molina and Wainwright’s situation is the number one priority. However, what happens when that top priority stretches out over way more of the offseason than was planned?
Well, one clear result is that most other opportunities pass you by. This is all speculation, but if the Cardinals are still arguing back and forth with Molina’s camp, they can’t spend as much time with other free agents. Nobody thinks the Cardinals are going to go after the biggest names, but there are plenty of others who can help this offense.
From everything we’ve heard from the team this winter, they are going to be cutting salary. Fans already saw that in the decision to let Kolten Wong walk. The Cardinals are saving some money even if they re-sign Molina as he won’t garner the $20M a year he has been being paid, but reports point to him getting right around $10M a year.
Based on the contracts David Dahl and Adam Eaton received, Joc Pederson should fall right in that $10-12 million range. Because of this, I’ve really started to believe what this whole article is about: I hope Yadier Molina signs somewhere else.
There is only so much money the Cardinals can spend this winter, and if the team signs Molina and Wainwright for roughly $15 million combined, there won’t be enough left to sign anyone else. Is that really what you want? Does that really make the team better for 2021 than signing Joc Pederson and another platoon bat like Jurickson Profar? In my head, there is a clear answer.
The biggest problem for the Cardinals in each of the past few years has been their offense. With this being the case, they need to maximize the matchups they have by platooning as many positions possible to get the best offense.
This past week, Yadier Molina’s ZiPS projections came out for 2021. While the whole offense looked bad, Molina’s projection was especially bad. ZiPS projected a further backslide, putting Molina at just a 76 OPS+ due to a low average, low power, and low on-base percentage. For reference, Harrison Bader’s 2019 OPS+ was 80. Is that really a bat you want regularly in the lineup?
The other option, Andrew Knizner, was projected for just an 81 OPS+ but these are two players headed in different directions. This brings me to my next point. Knizner has never gotten sustained playing time in his career. If he is the future behind the plate, he needs to have time to grow, to struggle, and to figure everything out. If Molina is here in 2021, Mike Shildt is going to have to tell him “no” and sit him some, or else Knizner is going to be thrown into the fire in 2022.
Even if Knizner were to struggle in 2021 at the plate, he and the team would be better because of it in 2022.
The Cardinals are not in a good spot for 2021. They are stuck in between the old contracts of Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter while still breaking in the prospects that will make up their next wave of talent. There is no way to quantify how much Molina means to this team with his leadership and game-calling skill. Having Molina behind the plate definitely helps the next wave of arms the team is bringing up.
However, at a certain point it is just time to move on. Molina is blocking the Cardinals from truly improving their offense, and if they only have about $20M to spend this winter, I would advocate it go to platoon bats that can bring the Cardinals out of this offensive pit they find themselves in.
The Cardinals would never come out and willingly break off talks, but if there was a time for them to finish second, this is it. In my opinion, the worst thing the Cardinals could do this winter is overpay to bring back Molina strictly because of nostalgia. I understand fans that do think that, but the Cardinals are a weak offensive team, and bringing back Yadi with the expectation of him playing every day makes the offense worse in 2021.
The risk the team takes in losing Molina is that Knizner’s game-calling leads to a backslide in pitching performance. While that is valid, the offensive potential from Knizner could be more important.
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This is a tough situation with no good answer. If Molina was saying that he’s happy in any role, this is a different conversation. However, if he won’t be a backup, I hope another team swoops in and signs him so the Cardinals can use that money in more meaningful ways. I will never not love Yadi, it just might be time to move on.