For the second straight winter, the Cardinals could face the prospect of losing a long-time star to free agency. Yadier Molina is not Albert Pujols, but the catcher's defensive prowess and his underrated bat will make his long-term future a major topic of concern for the Cards throughout this season.
Molina's next contract is likely to pay him in the neighborhood of $10MM per season, though his skillset makes him markedly different from the only other two catchers (Jorge Posada and Joe Mauer) who have signed deals with a $10MM AAV. Those players were both known primarily for their bats — Posada was a below-average defensive catcher while in Mauer's case, it's seemingly just a matter of time before injuries will eventually force him to move from behind the plate.
In Molina's case, however, defense is his calling card, be it throwing out would-be base-stealers (a 44% caught stealing rate over his career), picking off baserunners or his four Gold Gloves. As if being considered the best defensive catcher in baseball wasn't enough, Molina is also an underrated threat at the plate. Molina has hit .291/.348/.396 over the last four seasons, culminating with a career-best .814 OPS and 14 homers last season.
Molina is entering the last year of his contract with the Cardinals after the team made the no-brainer move of picking up their $7MM option on Molina for 2012. GM John Mozeliak said last month that there was a mutual interest between the team and the catcher in an extension, and that the Cards were "going to try to find a way to make it work."
Though he turns 30 in July, Molina's age shouldn't prevent him from finding at least a four-year deal on the open market, provided of course that he produces as usual in 2012. Between his consistent numbers, his defense, the scarcity of the catching position and his reputation as a clubhouse leader, Molina should be on pace to receive a four- or five-year contract worth $10MM per season, plus probably a club option year tacked onto the end.
Molina and his representatives at MDR Sports Management could certainly find a contract like that on the free agent market, but would they find it in St. Louis? One bright side of Pujols' departure is that it leaves the Cardinals with a good deal of long-term payroll flexibility. Lance Berkman and Kyle Lohse come off the books after this year and Jake Westbrook's $8.5MM team option is unlikely to be exercised, so that frees up just under $33MM. The Cards will have to decide about extending Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright (the latter is likelier than the former, though Wainwright's health is a bit of a question mark post-Tommy John surgery) and also maybe explore multiyear deals for young stars like Allen Craig, Jason Motte and David Freese. With just $68MM committed to the 2013 payroll, there seems to be no financial reason why the Cardinals couldn't bring Molina back.
There have been whispers that Molina may be disenchanted with the Cards' organization because they let his close friend Pujols leave, though new manager Mike Matheny denied this after recently speaking to Molina. While most St. Louis fans have made their peace with Pujols' departure given the sheer size of his Angels contract, it wouldn't be good for the Cardinals from a PR perspective if another homegrown star (one who would've commanded far less of a financial commitment) also left town.
Only Molina and his inner circle know if he truly wants to remain a Cardinal or not, but even if he doesn't, the Cards at least need to make every attempt to re-sign him. Molina is too much of a pro to carry any negative feelings onto the field, so if the two sides can't work out a new deal before Opening Day, expect a relatively drama-free season akin to how Pujols carried himself in his walk year. An extension would essentially guarantee that Molina retires as a Cardinal and, ironically, would mean that he would be supplanting his old friend as the face of the franchise.