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Could Molina Follow Pujols’ Path Out of St. Louis?

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.

molina-pujols-uspw_200In 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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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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10 Responses to “Could Molina Follow Pujols’ Path Out of St. Louis?”

  1. JumboShrimp says:

    Agents routinely decline mutual options, so yes Yadier Could depart post 2017. The only sure thing we have for 2018 is Kelly.

    The question is how many more years Yadier wants to play and whether the cards will pay him for this many years.

    Roman and Mo succeeded in making a deal last time. It might happen again. Or a deal may not be reachable.

    Would $36mm for 2018 and 2019 get it done? Or will we say good bye as with Mike Matheny in 2005?

    Free agency is deeply imbedded now in baseball. Future hall of famers leave and teams are not sorry to be spared their massive salaries.

  2. JumboShrimp says:

    Nice move by the Epstein to grab Jon jay

    • JumboShrimp says:

      Resigning Jay was one of my fallback plans. Molinas buddy

      • JumboShrimp says:

        Good for this thread

        • JumboShrimp says:

          The Cubs like having some Cardinals graduates. They currently have Jason Heyward, John Lackey, and now John Jay. Earlier there were Jason motte, Aaron Miles, John Mabry, Jim Edmonds, among many more.
          Jay is a useful signing. He can play center, especially in little Wrigley. He contributes a high on base lead off hitter, to replace Fowler, for much less money and years.
          Jay likes to win, as do most veterans, so why not sign with the world best?

  3. jj-cf-stl says:

    let yadi play his final guaranteed season in 17′, then decide on the club option for 18′, as they did w/holliday’s contract. if stl exercises the 18′ option, they have most of another season to evaluate an extension for beyond 18′. much can happen over the two next seasons before extension talk, and with a declining vet much of it can be bad.

    Kelly needs a Molina injury to warrant 25man time. riding the pine while yadi starts two weeks in a row is not Kelly’s best case, continued development in AAA is. there are plenty of backup defensive catchers available; Rosario or even FA tony cruz, let them ride the pine.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I agree with you on Kelly. On Molina, he could decide to walk after this coming season. Remember the option is a joint one, which isn’t really all that valuable.

      • jj-cf-stl says:

        mutual option, I missed that, good catch. I’d still want Mo to follow the holliday timeline and don’t decide on yadi until at least aug 1st. This offseason i’m more concerned with locking up Martinez.
        If yadi decides to walk that’s fine, most do, it’s where mlb players are now, chase the money.

        Yadi’s D is in decline. he reaches now, instead of blocking. he still receives and throws fine. Rosario blocks better than yadi, it’s glaringly evident when Rosario gets a start. I don’t want a sentimentality extension, base it on health and production and don’t overpay for loyalties sake.

        • Brian Walton says:

          I see no reason why Martinez and Molina would be mutually exclusive. I expect a Martinez deal this spring no matter what happens with Molina.

          The loyalty question is a tough one. I think there is some middle ground given Molina’s importance to the franchise. Of course, the devil is in the details.

          There is a discussion thread on the TCN message board about Molina contract ideas, including options and types of incentives. It is on my to-do list to try to suggest some potentially equitable alternatives here.

  4. JumboShrimp says:

    Funny photo with the article. Two amigos.

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