Yadier Molina is well past the point where the St. Louis Cardinals should reasonably expect him to be one of the best catchers in baseball. Entering play tonight, Molina’s offensive numbers were underwhelming–an on-base percentage just a tick above .300 with just eight home runs amounting to an 86 wRC+–and his defensive metrics, while still above-average, are a far cry from the numbers that gave him “best defensive catcher of all-time” plaudits throughout his career. Molina is on pace for his third consecutive below-average season at the plate, and his fourth in five years. And given that Molina will turn 40 midway through the 2022 season, for which he was extended for next season at a $10 million clip as initially reported by The Athletic‘s Katie Woo, it’s fair to assume the Cardinals are not expecting a career renaissance.
The sentimental reasons for extending Yadier Molina probably don’t need to be explored too extensively–I’ve done it with previous Yadier Molina extensions and will, if history holds, probably do it again–but every year, even when his years have diminishing returns, he continues to climb in the annals of Cardinals and baseball history. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, which gives weight to Yadier Molina’s all-around defensive game (particularly his framing), Molina is already the sixth greatest player in the history of the franchise, and he has a nonzero chance of passing Ozzie Smith on the list next year (4.1 fWAR in the next 1.2 years is a very optimistic projection, but not a 99th percentile one). Despite beginning his career as a major offensive liability, he passed Enos Slaughter and then Albert Pujols this year to become #4 in St. Louis Cardinals history in hits, and he’s just 21 hits from becoming passing Rogers Hornsby to trail only Stan Musial and Lou Brock, whose numbers, like Molina’s eventually will be, were removed from circulation upon their retirement from the Cardinals.
And defensively, Molina passed Ozzie Smith to become, by FanGraphs’s Defensive Runs Above Average, the most valuable fielder in the history of Major League Baseball. He now ranks as a top-ten catcher in baseball history by fWAR and will likely jump to #9 (he’s also within spitting distance of #8, but given that fellow future Hall of Famer Buster Posey is having a career renaissance in 2021 with the San Francisco Giants, this is very much a long shot). Yadier Molina is (presumably, someday) going to retire, in an era entirely within free agency’s existence, as the second or third most prolific player in Cardinals history by games played. The only thing that could keep Molina from Cooperstown is if the heat death of the universe occurs less than five years after his retirement, a theory which, despite some early reports that Molina is going to hang up his catcher’s gear after 2022, I am not discounting.
But from a purely immediate, transactional perspective, re-signing Yadier Molina, though hardly inspired, is defensible. Molina is on pace, by FanGraphs’s imperfect but I’m-not-averse-to-consulting-it WAR-to-dollars conversion, the veteran catcher is on pace to be worth, in 2021, $9.88 million. Adjusting for even a moderate bump in the going market rate for players in 2022, extremely likely given inflation and that teams will see a jump in their season ticket revenues for the season, a repeat of 2021 would likely mean Molina would be, by market standards, a slight underpay.
Of course, it’s fair to note that, at nearly 40 years old, Yadier Molina is more likely than your typical MLB players of falling off a cliff performance-wise. If your projection model has Molina as worth a little bit less than $10 million for next season, I can’t really argue against that, and while I would love to go full bleeding-heart as a defense of every contract any player signs, I also recognize that the $10 million spent on Yadier Molina could be spent on other players. But the Cardinals need a catcher for 2022, and Yadier Molina is probably still the best catcher in the organization. Despite a ton of hype for Andrew Knizner, his wRC+ in 211 MLB plate appearances stands at just 62, and his defensive metrics have been atrocious, particularly with regards to pitch framing. Knizner was once regarded as a top prospect, but at 26 (for as much as Molina’s slow offensive career start is a part of his legacy, he had an above-average season at the plate in his age-26 season), Knizner seems less likely to be the catcher of the Cardinals’ future and more likely to be a glorified version of Tony Cruz.
The real catching prospect to watch for the Cardinals is Iván Herrera, the 21 year-old out of Panama who has been a consistently solid hitter in the minor leagues–he has been above-average by wRC+ with 14 home runs in 364 plate appearances at AA Springfield this season. His defense is generally well-regarded by scouts–not Yadier Molina-levels, mind you, but that’s quite the ask–and he has climbed onto several Top 100 prospects in Major League Baseball lists. But is a catcher born in June 2000 ready to inherit the position as St. Louis Cardinals starting catcher from a future Hall of Famer? I suppose it isn’t impossible, but Herrera is also still fairly green (the lack of 2020 minor league season didn’t seem to crush his development, but it may have slowed it down somewhat).
A one-year stopgap seems like the correct move if the Cardinals believe Herrera is their future starting catcher. But unlike J.T. Realmuto, a premium catcher who was a free agent last off-season, there is a dearth of quality options behind the plate coming up as free agents. There are a total of two pending free agent catchers who have accumulated more fWAR in 2021 than Molina–Yan Gomes (0.4 fWAR more) and Manny Pina (0.0 more–it’s literally a rounding error’s worth of difference). J.T. Realmuto is a legitimate star, one perhaps worth shaking up the Cardinals’ clubhouse for, but given that Yadier Molina is, by all accounts, an absolutely beloved teammate, is it really worth upsetting the applecart for somebody who is likely, at best, an extremely marginal, barely cheaper one-year solution? Like many sabermetrically-inclined fans, I tend to discount the value of intangibles, but I will happily buy that they can make the difference between Yadier Molina and Yan Gomes for one season.
This isn’t the clamoring for Albert Pujols to return to the Cardinals after he was designated for assignment by the Los Angeles Angels. Pujols, even while surpassing just about everyone’s expectations for his performance with the Los Angeles Dodgers, has an extremely narrowly-defined role, and would also have one with the Cardinals. But Yadier Molina has a role, and he can be a productive, if hardly an MVP-caliber, player with the Cardinals for one more year. And that’s not even taking into account, well, that he’s one of the franchise’s most beloved players ever. That’s a nice little touch, too.