Yadier Molina is going to make the Hall of Fame.
I’m not saying this to be abrasive, or even to assert my own opinion on the matter—this is a bland statement of (probable) fact. There isn’t a more discussed current player in terms of Hall of Fame credentials, which makes sense, as he merits discussion far more than Mike Trout, who is more likely to make the Hall of Fame unanimously than to not make it at all, or even a Joey Votto, a player whose credentials aren’t quite as robust as Trout’s but whose case is relatively straightforward. Molina requires some nuance, as there is a huge gulf on his case’s strength depending on whether you consult Baseball Reference (not particularly close to making it), FanGraphs (borderline), or the purely anecdotal eye test (first ballot). But in 2021, it’s basically a settled matter, for better or worse. ESPN’s Jeff Passan, for example, has reached some level of infamy among St. Louis Cardinals fans for his personal agnosticism on Molina’s deservedness, but even he fully acknowledges Molina will make it.
By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, the version I strongly prefer for catchers due to their inclusion of more defensive data than Baseball Reference’s formula, Yadier Molina has been worth 54.5 wins above replacement in his career. I would semi-arbitrarily place the threshold of “Is this guy realistically in the Hall of Fame discussion?” at 50 WAR. For some reference, the current MLB player who most barely clears 50 career fWAR is Evan Longoria, a player who I don’t think is going to make the Hall of Fame but who will get some discussion and when he receives some votes, those who vote for him won’t be laughed out of the building.
Yadier Molina is a free agent, and as a result, the Cardinals no longer have a player with 50+ career fWAR (for what it’s worth—Adam Wainwright is at 46.3, though he is of course is also no longer a Cardinal). Paul Goldschmidt is the closest, with 41.4 fWAR, but at 33, he is hardly a lock to reach 50. He is projected by ZiPS for a 2.1 fWAR season, and based on aging curves, this would give him a sub-50% shot. It certainly isn’t an outcome I would definitively call “likely”.
Prior to Molina, who debuted in 2004, the Cardinals had at least two of Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, or Albert Pujols, all of whom were worth 50+ fWAR, since 1997. In 1996, back to 1982, the Cardinals had Ozzie Smith. Prior to then was Keith Hernandez and his 59.4 fWAR, who takes the Cardinals all the way back to 1974. His time, of course, overlaps with the career of Bob Gibson, who began his Cardinals career in 1959, who overlapped with Stan Musial, who debuted with the Cardinals in 1941.
But Stan Musial didn’t play in 1945, as a result of his military service, and despite the best efforts of Red Schoendienst, Marty Marion, and Harry Brecheen, the 1945 Cardinals did not have a 50+ fWAR player. If you were to grant the Cardinals an exception for military service and the fact that Stan Musial was still employed by the Cardinals, you could go back even further—Johnny Mize was a 50+ WAR Cardinal from 1932-1940, Frankie Frisch can take the mantle back to Rogers Hornsby, and by making a 1945 exception, the streak of the Cardinals having a 50+ WAR player dates back to 1915.
But let’s stick with 1945, as we can say without equivocation that in every season since World War II, somebody played for the St. Louis Cardinals (note that I said “played for”—if a player missed a season due to injury or any other reason, he doesn’t count) who accumulated 50+ fWAR. How rare is that? I have no frame of reference for this. Let’s explore this together and see how far back other teams with active 50+ WAR players go. I say this knowing that other active players will get there, but since I don’t know that they will, I’m not going to do any guessing. Will Chris Sale (44.4 fWAR, will turn 32 just before Opening Day) reach 50? Maybe, but I’m certainly not going to say it with any certainty—pitchers, luck, etc.
Here are the teams with at least one player over 50 fWAR on their active roster.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim—Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. As Trout debuted in 2011 and Pujols didn’t join the Angels until 2012, only Trout matters here.
Houston Astros—Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. Verlander debuted with the Astros in 2017, so he is the standard-bearer.
Detroit Tigers—Miguel Cabrera, who debuted with Detroit in 2008.
Washington Nationals—Max Scherzer, who joined the Nationals in 2015.
Cincinnati Reds—Joey Votto, who debuted in 2007.
San Francisco Giants—Buster Posey and Evan Longoria. Posey, who debuted in 2010, is the relevant one here.
Los Angeles Dodgers—Clayton Kershaw, who debuted in 2008.
Let’s trace back their 50+ WAR lineage.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: The Angels, I know, cannot trace back longer than the Cardinals, as they did not exist until fifteen years after the Cardinals’ streak began. But they are also a team that seems to enjoy signing players based on past performance, so it would make sense that, say, the team that signed late-stage Reggie Jackson might be able to extend the streak a little bit with those types of players one after another. The 2010 Angels had one player, despite the best efforts of Dan Haren and Torii Hunter, who cleared 50 fWAR—current Hall of Fame candidate Bobby Abreu, who joined the Angels in 2009. Swinging back to 2008 allows the Angels to pick up Vladimir Guerrero, who carries the mantle back to 2004. The 2003 Angels, despite being defending World Series champions, come up dry, however, in spite of notables such as John Lackey, Tim Salmon, and Troy Glaus.
Houston Astros: Unsurprisingly, the Astros having an abjectly terrible team in the early 2010s doesn’t allow this run to go very long. In fact, it ends before Justin Verlander’s arrival. This is a retrospective accomplishment, so it’s still possible Jose Altuve gets there. But he isn’t there yet.
Detroit Tigers: The 2007 Tigers seem like an eternity ago—did you know Gary Sheffield was on them? I…probably knew this at one point, but I certainly didn’t now. The 2007 team actually had three 50+ WAR guys, but none went back too far before 2007—Sheffield was in his first season, Justin Verlander debuted in 2005, and Ivan Rodriguez joined the Tigers in 2004. The 2003 Tigers went 43-119, and while Carlos Pena had a nice little peak in his career, nobody on that team was particularly close to Hall of Fame relevance, unless you count manager Alan Trammell.
Washington Nationals: The 2014 Nationals were a very good team with several players who may reach 50+ fWAR eventually. But Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper aren’t there yet.
Cincinnati Reds: You may not instinctively think of the Reds as a contender, but keep in mind that prior to Joey Votto, they had Ken Griffey Jr. And Griffey Jr. takes the Reds all the way back to 2000. They are the first team so far to have a 50+ fWAR player every year this century. And prior to that, they had Barry Larkin, who debuted as a Red in 1986. And then the Reds have Pete Rose. But this was second, shorter stage with the Reds Pete Rose, who re-joined the team in 1984. But the 1983 Reds had Johnny Bench, who carries the Reds all the way back to 1967. But we go back to Pete Rose, all the way back to 1963. And the 1962 Reds had Frank Robinson, as did the Reds dating back to 1956. But that is when the run ends, despite the best efforts of Ted Kluszewski.
San Francisco Giants: Buster Posey covers the entire last decade except for last season, but Evan Longoria has him covered there. 2009 had whatever was left of Randy Johnson. And while the Giants would only need a one-year stopgap in 2008 to unlock a decade and a half of Barry Bonds, they did not have one, despite the insistence of many that Omar Vizquel qualifies.
Los Angeles Dodgers: A team that never is really terrible seems like a promising candidate. And Jeff Kent was on the Dodgers in the pre-Kershaw season, as well as the seasons dating back to 2004. 2003 is still firmly in the Adrian Beltre era in LA, and he allows the Dodgers to become our first challenger to go back to the 20th century, as he debuted in 1998. And 1998 corresponds to the tail end of Mike Piazza’s strong run, which goes back to 1992. The Dodgers had three 50+ guys in 1991—Gary Carter, Eddie Murray, and most significantly, Orel Hershiser, who debuted for the Dodgers in 1983. And the 1982 Dodgers, back to 1971, were sustained by Ron Cey, a player I never would have guessed was a 55.6 fWAR career player, but this proves what a punk millennial I am. The 1970 Dodgers had the recently late Don Sutton, but most significantly for this exercise had Willie Davis, whose Dodgers career extended back to 1960. The 1959 Dodgers had several players who fit this criteria, but the one who benefits us most was Duke Snider, a Brooklyn Dodgers legend who takes us back to 1947, where he became the second most famous player to debut for the Dodgers in 1947. The 1946 Dodgers had two players with 50+ fWAR—former Cardinal Joe Medwick, who was beginning his second run with the Dodgers, and Pee Wee Reese, who debuted in 1940. But like Stan Musial, he served in the military and missed the 1945 season. So it’s a tie.
Maybe this is an unsatisfying answer, but I think there are clear tiers for this race. The Cardinals and Dodgers are in a two-horse race, and the Reds are worthy Bronze Medalists. Now, all the Cardinals need to do is to re-sign Yadier Molina rather than gambling on Paul Goldschmidt or Jack Flaherty or whoever else to reach 50+ fWAR.