Cardinals: Molina’s leadership and loyalty come at a high price
By Matt Graves
For better or worse, Yadier Molina will be back for another season with the St. Louis Cardinals.
The career and path that has kept Yadier Molina in a St. Louis Cardinals jersey for his 18-year career in MLB has been well-documented by many sites and with differing opinions. In this neck of the woods, you’ll rarely find a fan who doesn’t know his name and who doesn’t think he’ll end up with a statue in front of Busch Stadium.
The debate about just how good Molina is has been going on for years and is still ongoing, but before anyone can judge him, the old man has got to retire. On Tuesday, that can was officially kicked down the road yet again as the Cardinals signed the 39-year-old to a $10 million extension for the 2022 season.
Molina hit free agency for the first time in his career after the 2020 season, but ultimately found his way back home on a $9 million contract signed just weeks before spring training. When judging his 2021 season to see if he’s been worth a raise in 2022, the easy answer is that this reflects the Cardinals’ loyalty to Molina and a marketplace that has rebounded from COVID-19 more than it does his play.
The 2021 season has had multiple chapters for the Cardinals’ backstop. Out of the gate, Molina put on a fireworks show coming into the season a little heavier and stronger than in previous years. Finishing with a .631 slugging percentage and .997 OPS over 19 games in April/March, that was his best single-month slugging percentage ever and his best OPS since June of 2007 (1.071).
However, that chapter closed when Molina battled a strained tendon in his right foot at the end of the month that ultimately landed him on the IL. After his return, he was clearly still battling the foot issue and suffered from a bruised knee and neck stiffness before he skipped out on his 10th All-Star appearance to rest. From the day he returned from his foot injury (May 8) to the break, he hit just .233/.280/.333.
In the end, his first-half slash line of .257/.303/.412 hardly warranted the appointment to the Midsummer Classic. The stiff neck from June has continued to bother Molina into the second half, and he currently has just a .263/.307/.284 slash since the break, though an 86 wRC+ and 51 RBI is nothing to be mad about for a catcher, specifically one that is 39.
The Savant landing page tells you that Molina’s performance isn’t a fluke and that he has simply regressed in most aspects of play. One encouraging thing to pick out from this season from Molina is that his defense appears to still be there.
While it’s easy to remember a few times in games where Molina has gotten lazy a little bit behind the plate, his overall Defensive WAR is on pace for what it was in both 2018 and 2019, and his framing is still as good as ever.
Moving into his age 39-40 season, what the next year of regression will look like is slightly concerning if Molina is still going to be playing every day.
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Clearly, though, anyone looking just at Molina’s box score or advanced statistics or anything but the full picture would do a spit take if they heard that this player got $10M on the open market when 32-year-old Travis d’Arnaud got $16M over two years. In a vacuum (and at first glance from me) this deal seems preposterous and giving Molina a raise after this year doesn’t seem smart. This level of analysis of the deal leaves out a lot though.
The term “fan empathy” is likely one that has kept the front office up at night at times during the 2021 season as a variety of factors have led to more empty seats than usual. The continued predominance of COVID-19 in society as a whole has made going to a baseball game seem tougher to justify financially and through a lens of personal welfare.
However, a lack of performance from the team can’t be ignored as a contributing factor. Voices on Twitter are always louder than true fan perception might be, but in a situation where Molina came to the team and said he was going to play in 2022, not having him on the Cardinals could’ve been a disastrous PR situation.
Whether Molina has been worth his contract on the field this year is up for debate. But there is no question that fans seeing his name on the lineup card sells more tickets than when he isn’t.
There is something to be said about the loyalty both for Molina to the Cardinals and vice versa. If the team had gone all-in on Albert Pujols and kept him around in 2011, the odds that Molina is still here a decade later are much lower. The loyalty that he showed St. Louis earlier in his career is being returned to him now in his twilight and John Mozeliak echoed that.
In the end, the price the Cardinals were willing to pay for Molina’s services indicates that they don’t care as much about his on-field play as they do his loyalty, leadership, in-game management, and ability to sell tickets.
Molina’s regression this year is more poignant because he’s spent the majority of his time batting 5th this year. On a team with a better offense surrounding him, a catcher isn’t relied upon for his offense as much as other positions. This point was made very well by Jason Hill of Viva El Birdos. If the team gets better around Molina in 2022 through the $60 million or so the team has coming off the books after 2021, this contract is a complete no-brainer.
Before being too quick to judge, nothing has been said about what will happen with Knizner, what the proposed playing time is for Molina next year, or what the ETA of Ivan Herrera is. It is also important to consider how Molina’s return could impact the potential return of Adam Wainwright.
All that we know right now is that Molina, for better or worse, will spend what may be his last season in baseball on the St. Louis Cardinals.