When evaluating which free agents would be good fits for various teams, arguably the most important factor to consider is team need. More depth is always good, sure, but a great free agent fit is one where the team has a hole in their lineup, rotation, or bullpen, and a free agent provides such an upgrade for them that said team signs said player to a lucrative contract. Say, for instance, that both Jose Altuve and Bryce Harper became free agents. Now, Altuve is arguably the superior player, but he plays a position currently occupied on the St. Louis Cardinals by Kolten Wong–Altuve would be an improvement but not by leaps and bounds relative to Bryce Harper, who would very easily slot into either corner outfield spot for the Cardinals. Therefore, I’d rather back up the Brinks truck for Harper.
This is the same logic that would have me preferring, if this were the choice, that the Cardinals sign Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg over Anthony Rendon. It’s not that Anthony Rendon is a worse player–I think he might be a touch more valuable and quite a bit safer of a bet, as a position player rather than a pitcher–but the third baseman would be jumping into a team that received above-average value from its third basemen last season despite their most common third baseman, Matt Carpenter, having far and away his worst season in the Majors. Meanwhile, 2020 Steamer projections have Cole worth 4.8 more Wins Above Replacement than the Cardinals’ fifth starter, compared to a 3.7 WAR improvement for Rendon over Carpenter.
The Cardinals already have a pretty solid infield–the biggest non-Carpenter grievance with it in 2019 was that Paul Goldschmidt was merely a very good player rather than a great one. As such, improving the infield is very difficult. There are better first basemen in the world than Paul Goldschmidt, but 1. Not by that much; 2. Not on the free agent market. The easiest aspect to improve on the team, hitter or pitcher, is in the outfield, but the best outfielder on the market is Marcell Ozuna, a perfectly cromulent familiar face but not really somebody who dramatically moves the needle.
The Cardinals were, by all accounts, not major players in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, but signing him last off-season would be even more tantalizing in retrospect because even if the team didn’t perceive outfield as a major weakness for 2019, they knew that Marcell Ozuna was a pending free agent. Harper would have been valuable in 2019, but he was going to be even more valuable in 2020 and beyond. Ideally, you sign a player who fills a need now and later, but sometimes, it’s worth it to sign a player a year early, and sometimes it’s worth signing a player to a longer contract to fill an immediate hole because that’s just the cost of doing business.
On this year’s free agent market, a player existed who, by Steamer projections, represented a 2.9 win improvement over the incumbent at the position, and he would represent a more sizable improvement in future seasons. He projects to be the best player in baseball at his position. In 2019, the free agent was 4 FanGaphs WAR better. In 2018, he was 2.2 fWAR better. In 2017, he was 1.8 fWAR better. In 2016, the gap was 2.3 wins. In 2015, the free agent was 2.8 wins better. If you trust in FanGraphs WAR as more or less accurately portraying player value, there is no question that Player A, the free agent, is superior to Player B, the Cardinal. Over the last half-decade, Player A was not only over twice as productive as Player B, he did so in marginally fewer plate appearances. In the last five seasons, Player B was the 79th most valuable position player in baseball. Player A ranked 12th.
Player A is Yasmani Grandal, most recently of the Milwaukee Brewers and long of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who signed a four-year contract on Thursday with the Chicago White Sox. Grandal will receive $18.25 million per season. Player B will make $20 million next season and be a free agent immediately after. The Chicago White Sox finished 28 1/2 games out of first place in the American League Central in 2019 and finished 23 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot; despite intriguing young players and a supposed (and, at least on Thursday, demonstrated) willingness to spend money, they are considered a mid-tier AL team at best. Yet they signed Grandal to replace James McCann, tied for 8th in fWAR among catchers last season. The Cardinals, NL Central and NLDS champions, were never going to sign Yasmani Grandal because of the presence of Player B, who tied for 25th in fWAR. Of course, if his name were Player B, signing Grandal wouldn’t be nearly as controversial as a proposition as it is when the player’s name is Yadier Molina.
Yadier Molina is, of course, a Cardinals legend, and five years after he retires, he will be a Hall of Fame candidate for a good reason. And this isn’t just Cardinals red-colored glasses conjecture–the same FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement statistic that has dismissed the last five years of Yadier Molina evaluates the catcher’s career very favorably. He currently ranks 12th among catchers in history, and he will likely vault into the top ten even with a mediocre 2020. Of the eleven currently ahead of Molina, there is a player who spent nearly as much time at first base and a large chunk of his career at third base, two players who are not yet eligible for Cooperstown, a player (Ted Simmons) who is on the Veterans Ballot and could very well get into the Hall of Fame in a couple months, and seven Hall of Famers.
But Molina is now 37 years old and while he has held up better than most catchers his age, his decline has still been visible. While his offense hasn’t reverted to the depths of his early career, he is no longer hitting close to as well as his MVP-chasing early 2010s seasons. But perhaps more startling is that his defense, arguably the best in the history of the sport at his peak, has become utterly ordinary. From 2012 through 2015, Molina was throwing out nearly half of those attempting to steal on him: 48%, 43%, 48%, and 41%. Over the next four seasons, his CS% has stood at 21%, 36%, 31%, and 27%. He has still been above league average, but hardly anything special. While Molina was once an elite pitch framer, particularly before pitch framing became a skill the general public knew about or quantified (hence why he got a massive FanGraphs WAR boost once the metric became part of its WAR calculation), his numbers have declined.
Molina has saved 5.2 runs through framing over the past three seasons–from 2008 (the first year of the data) through 2013, he never saved fewer than 15.4 runs in any given season. Since 2015 (in the name of fairness–Molina was substantially better, if not Peak Molina, at framing in 2016 and 2017), Molina has been the 16th most valuable framer in baseball. Yasmani Grandal ranks first, having saved 99.5 runs to Molina’s 23.5. By total defensive value, as measured by Defensive Runs Above Average, Molina ranked 12th in baseball (catcher or not). Grandal ranked, by a wide margin, first.
My suggestion that the Cardinals should have looked into Yasmani Grandal is more about Grandal than Molina, to be clear. If I were starting a team from scratch, with no infrastructure already in place, Grandal would probably be the second or third player from the free agent crop I would pick. I certainly don’t consider the presence of Molina in the lineup to be a glaring black hole which the Cardinals cannot overcome. But 2020 Yadier Molina is a perfectly competent player that, by any other name, we wouldn’t consider untouchable. And since he is under contract through only next year, replacing him isn’t merely a theoretical possibility–it is soon to be an inevitable reality, even if his replacement is simply “more Yadier Molina”.
Yadier Molina as a backup is a possibility I consider only slightly more sacrilegious than “Matt Carpenter as a backup”, and maybe that speaks to a relative lack of sentimentality about Yadier Molina. This is a pointless thing to consider now–there is no longer a catcher on the free agent market who would start ahead of Yadier Molina, not that Yasmani Grandal was ever going to be a Cardinal. But at some point, the Cardinals are going to have to start planning for life without Yadier Molina. Sometimes the transitions are relatively graceful–sometimes they are Tony LaRussa playing Royce Clayton over Ozzie Smith and tearing the fan base apart. The Adam Wainwright template would be a promising one–if Molina re-signed for Not Twenty Million Dollars Per Season in 2021 and acted in a more part-time capacity along with Andrew Knizner, I would be willing to overlook a lot of his shortcomings. But Molina is still one of the most used catchers in baseball when he isn’t on the Injured List, and if his effectiveness continues to diminish, the Cardinals may have an uncomfortable decision coming. And when that decision comes, the Molina alternative will almost certainly be a worse player than Yasmani Grandal.