Cardinals icon Yadier Molina saw his three-year, $60MM contract expire at season’s end, which could potentially send him into the open market for the first time in his 17-year big league career. There’s sure to be mutual interest in extending the relationship, but agent Melvin Roman tells MLB Network’s Jon Heyman that his client is seeking a two-year deal (audio link to Heyman’s Big Time Baseball Podcast with Tony Gwynn Jr.; Molina talk begins at 34:30).
Whether the Cardinals are interested in handing out a multi-year deal for Molina at this stage of his career is unclear. Though he’s a nine-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove winner, Molina’s bat has tailed off dramatically in recent seasons. He’s still managed to hit for a respectable average, but his already meager walk rate has begun to head south. And while his 13.5 percent strikeout rate from 2020 was still considerably lower than the league average, Molina sat around nine to ten percent in that category at his peak. This year’s 78.1 percent contact rate was far and away the lowest of his career, and his 12 percent swinging-strike rate was easily a career-high.
Overall, Molina has turned in a .268/.310/.388 slash over the past couple of seasons. It should be noted that while that translates to an 86 wRC+ — composite production that is 14 percent worse than an average hitter when weighted for home park and league — Molina’s production is right in line with the average MLB catcher in that span. In addition to being a solid bat relative to his positional peers, he also threw out a strong 31.7 percent of attempted base thieves over the past two seasons. In terms of pitch framing, both FanGraphs and Statcast consider Molina slightly above-average dating back to 2019.
It’s not the same package that Molina brought to the table at his peak — or even when he signed that three-year deal prior to the 2018 season — but it’s not as though he has completely wilted. A rather considerable pay cut in terms of annual salary still seems all but certain, whether on a one- or two year deal and whether with the Cardinals or a new team. Not long ago, talk of Molina signing anywhere other than St. Louis would have seemed outlandish, but he said in the run-up to this year’s shortened season that he intended to keep playing even if it meant signing with a new team.
For the Cardinals, the decision comes down to retaining an icon and potential Hall of Famer or turning things over to a younger option like Andrew Knizner. The 25-year-old Knizner (26 in February) has yet to produce in the big leagues but has long rated as one of the organization’s more promising farmhands. He carries a .283/.362/.453 slash through 341 Triple-A plate appearances and a near-identical OPS in a more pitcher-friendly Double-A setting.
At some point, one would imagine the Cardinals would like to see Knizner take on a larger role — even if Molina were to re-sign for a year or two. Further down the organizational pipeline is 20-year-old Ivan Herrera, who could also factor into the equation by the 2022 time frame through which Molina apparently hopes to be extended.
The Cards have some decisions to make regarding both Molina and longtime teammate Adam Wainwright, each of whom seems intent on playing another year at least. The organization must also decide on Kolten Wong’s $12.5MM option, although it’s possible they’ll look to restructure that arrangement.
Those decisions come not only against the backdrop of league-wide revenue losses stemming from the absence of fans in 2020, but at a time when the Cards have $109.75MM guaranteed to eight players and an arbitration class with some key names up for raises. It’s a tough situation for president of baseball ops John Mozeliak and general manager Mike Girsch to navigate — particularly as they look to account for the loss of righty Dakota Hudson (Tommy John surgery) and augment a lineup that produced middling results in 2020.