On Tuesday, reporter Jon Morosi may have scooped himself. Just a few minutes after breaking information that the St. Louis Cardinals have shown interest in free agent third baseman Justin Turner, the MLB.com writer followed up with more news that could have an even greater impact on the Cardinals down the road – at the catching position.
However, with all the attention on Turner, this storyline initially received precious little attention.
In support of an article about Yadier Molina’s intent to compete for his Puerto Rican homeland in the World Baseball Classic this coming spring, Morosi spoke with the catcher’s long-time agent, Melvin Roman. The agent told the reporter of his plan to address Molina’s contact situation with Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak prior to Opening Day 2017.
The stated goal is for Molina to remain a Cardinal for the remainder of his career – with the implied threat of the possibility of free agency.
Though Molina is under contract for 2017 with a mutual option in place for his age 35-36 season in 2018, Roman does not want to wait to look further ahead. As a result, a position that seemed most stable on the Cardinals, catching, now seems as if it could become a major source of controversy fairly soon.
Though Morosi hardly had to remind Cardinals fans, one can see a potential parallel ahead with how the club’s contract negotiations with Molina’s close friend Albert Pujols evolved over the years of 2010 and 2011. Of course, that culminated in a painful divorce finalized just weeks after the World Championship celebration.
The Cardinals’ short-term plan from 12 months ago for veteran Brayan Pena to spend 2016 and 2017 as Molina’s reserve blew out with Pena’s knee last spring, leading to the Cuban native’s release on Monday. Many think that assures 22-year-old prospect Carson Kelly will back Molina up in 2017.
I am less sure about that. Kelly is just three years into catching and is still in learning mode, both defensively and at the plate. With barely a month – just 32 career games – of experience at Triple-A, more development time playing every day with Memphis would likely benefit Kelly most at this stage of his career. (Not to mention more time in the minors potentially holding off his arbitration and free agent eligibility, which could have significant future financial benefit to the team. I have much more to say on the Kelly subject here.)
It is also worth remembering that back in 2004, the then-21-year-old Molina was kept in Triple-A as the regular catcher until he was needed in St. Louis in June when starter Mike Matheny was injured.
It is clear that Matheny, now St. Louis’ manager, relies heavily on his catcher, to the extent he inks Molina’s name on the lineup card daily – unless Molina taps out. In 2016, that happened less often than any time in Molina’s 13 years as a Major Leaguer. He appeared in a career-high 147 games and was arguably St. Louis’ best hitter in the second half of the season – when one might have thought he would be wearing down.
It seems a stretch to think that Kelly’s potential arrival as a reserve would significantly alter that playing time dynamic in 2017.
For those who think Molina could be easily shifted to first base or designated hitter later on, neither appears to be an easy fit.
Many who have been writing about the possibility of the designated hitter coming to the National League soon seemed more driven by hope than reality. A number of NL clubs, including the Cardinals themselves, remain against the idea. Further, informal news from the current Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations suggests the issue is not on the table for the upcoming CBA, likely to cover the next five years.
I am among the many who have asked Matheny in the past about Molina playing first base periodically to rest. The manager has steadfastly rejected the idea, pointing out that if Molina needs a breather, then he would get the whole day off rather than having one of the best catchers in MLB history play out of position.
It may not matter anyway, as first base looks occupied for the foreseeable future with Matt Carpenter already announced as the new starter there. Carpenter, clearly St. Louis’ top offensive threat but of lesser impact defensively, is under contract through 2019 with a 2020 option.
Though we have no idea if the aforementioned interest in Turner to play third base has any real substance, let’s assume for a moment it does. That signing would further solidify the club’s corner infield assignments and almost assuredly lock Carpenter out of returning to third base through the remainder of his current contract.
The broader point is that there seems no viable alternative position for Molina in the field with St. Louis other than behind the plate – even if the manager wanted him to play elsewhere.
Especially given all that is going on around them, one cannot blame Molina and Roman for wanting to try to lock down well in advance what should be the catcher’s final years as an active player.
Yet, it is almost certainly going to be a ticklish situation.
Will the Cardinals want to keep Kelly on ice for more than two additional years before giving him a real shot at the regular job?
Far more importantly, can the club risk letting a franchise icon, a potential Hall of Famer, walk away from his only home as a professional at age 36? But yet, how would they be able to best utilize Molina in his declining years?
Even worse, the possibility may soon be on the table for Molina to depart a year earlier, following the 2017 season. What if Roman gets nowhere with his push for an extension in the upcoming months and Molina comes to an early conclusion that he will not be able to remain with St. Louis beyond his current deal?
If so, he could decline the joint 2018 option and hit the free agent market as early as possible – next fall – to score what should be his final multi-year contract as a player. Leaving the $15 million tentatively committed for 2018 on the table would not be as painful with the promise of a new, longer career-ending deal ahead elsewhere.
There are too many variables currently to predict how this will play out, but one can expect the subject of Molina’s future to receive more and more attention in the upcoming months.
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