Before I dig deeper into this post, regarding rumors first circulated by Marly Rivera of ESPN.com that St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is open to playing for a new team in 2021 if he is not able to agree to terms on a new contract with the only team on which he has played in his Major League career, I want to make the following points abundantly clear.
Number one, Yadier Molina has every right to leave St. Louis. Even his most fervent detractors (these detractors are essentially hypothetical–I can’t personally recall a more beloved Cardinal among the team’s fans) can surely acknowledge that Yadier Molina has given his all to the Cardinals. Even as somebody who is relatively skeptical on some of the grander claims to Molina’s greatness–I think he makes for an interesting Hall of Fame case but is hardly a slam dunk, no brainer for Cooperstown–it is impossible to question his effort. Number two, relatedly, if he leaves St. Louis for another team and that team plays in St. Louis, give that man a standing ovation. This seems obvious that he would, given that this is a city that dispenses standing ovations for former players like Olive Garden dispenses breadsticks, but I also remember the anger towards Albert Pujols in late 2011 when he signed with the Los Angeles Angels. Obviously, this anger was not permanent, and Pujols got a raucous standing ovation when he finally returned to St. Louis in 2019, but had he returned in 2012? I think his reception would have been far more mixed. Number three, I think discussing Molina’s hypothetical move to another team is a totally fair thing to do, especially if you are a Cardinals blogger who has spent his week so far building John Mozeliak a hypothetical time machine and creating a starting nine based on completely arbitrary parameters.
That said, Yadier Molina probably isn’t going anywhere.
I want to come right out and forcefully guarantee it, and I would if not for one mitigating factor (that I am a feckless coward). But Molina’s departure would not make sense for either party involved.
The obvious comparison point is Albert Pujols, the last player of anything resembling Molina’s stature to leave St. Louis. But while Pujols built his stature in eleven seasons, Molina has built his in seventeen (and counting). In 2011, Albert Pujols had his worst season in Major League Baseball, but he was still a superstar–he finished in fifth in National League MVP voting and was worth 5.3 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs was a little more cynical, placing him at 3.9 fWAR). Pujols was 31 years old and by far the most acclaimed free agent on the market that season. Yadier Molina is coming off a 1.3 bWAR season, faring slightly worse by fWAR (1.2). Molina hasn’t reached Pujols’s nadir Cardinals season by either measure since 2013.
Most people believed when Pujols signed with the Angels that, at least in the short term, he was going to be a highly productive player. As it turned out, his drop-off was quicker than we expected, but the anticipation was not simply that the Angels were buying an icon of the past, but that they were signing somebody to pair alongside mega-prospect Mike Trout for at least five or six more seasons–Pujols would be overpaid for the end of his contract, but he would be highly impactful in the early seasons to enough of an extent to off-set it.
But Yadier Molina in 2020 (and in 2021) isn’t that type of player. The ZiPS projection system pegs Molina as tied for the 13th best catcher in baseball for 2020, and given his age (he turns 38 in July) and workload (he is already seventh all-time in innings caught–he will pass A.J. Pierzynski for sixth in literally the next game he plays), it is next to impossible to imagine he will appreciate in value for his first year with his hypothetical new team. As of now, Molina is still a perfectly cromulent catcher, but he isn’t a superstar to the extent that he once was. Molina wouldn’t be anywhere close to the most sought-after free agent catcher next season (that honor belongs to J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies backstop who is arguably the sport’s current best at the position)–imagining a team going more than two years on a Molina contract seems next to impossible.
Yadier Molina has a reputation that cannot be captured by even the most advanced catching metrics, but it stands to logic that if any team can accurately gauge his almost-mythic ability to work with young pitchers, it would be the Cardinals. As for what we can quantify, Molina’s numbers are in decline, both at the plate, where he no longer has the numbers of an MVP candidate (though he is still materially better than his offense-free early years), and most significantly, behind the plate, where his once-excellent pitch framing and steal-stopping abilities have been reduced to the realm of the pedestrian–advanced catching metrics have overwhelmingly been a friend to Molina, but this is not particularly the case anymore.
If we were talking about Yadier Molina in Spring Training 2012, right before he signed an extension that was originally considered somewhat generous to the catcher but ultimately became a bargain, I would acknowledge that there is a strong possibility Molina would test the market because he could get tens of millions, and potentially hundreds of millions, by doing so. Even in Spring Training 2017, there were real doubts if Molina would remain a Cardinal beyond that season before he signed a three-year, $60 million extension under which he still plays (I defended the contract at the time not because Molina is a Cardinals legend but because I didn’t think the terms were particularly outrageous).
But in 2020, Molina no longer has the power to name his price or go get it elsewhere. The next Yadier Molina contract, assuming there is one, is going to be a fraction of even his last contract–probably in the high seven or low eight digits. And assuming Molina doesn’t retire, we are to expect one of two things–that Molina is worth considerably above his expected, tangible market value in 2021 to a team other than the Cardinals, or that the Cardinals are going to let Yadier Molina walk for a few million bucks–if we expect he will ever wear another team’s uniform. And I’m not buying either.