Much has been written and will continue to be written by me (and others) about the ongoing contract negotiations between the St. Louis Cardinals and catcher Yadier Molina. That is understandable. After all, one could argue it is the most sensitive matter on the club’s table – one that seems unlikely to be resolved soon.
An enlightening look back
Ironically, five years ago yesterday, on March 1, 2012, Molina signed a five-year, $75 million contract extension with St. Louis. Even at that time, he was the longest-tenured active Cardinal and of course, that fact remains today.
The 2012 terms include a $15 million mutual option for 2018 or a $2 million buyout - the latter of which is included in the $75 million total calculation. Despite the deal being panned by some fans and national media observers – and even some rival clubs! – the contract has turned out to be a very good one for St. Louis. (I especially liked this warning from one of those quoted baseball writers on resulting long-term damage: “The Cardinals could be a very cash-strapped organization come 2016-17.” Uh, no.)
At the time, 83 percent of (mostly) Cardinals fans responding to a survey on my blog supported the contract. However, a vocal minority – including some very prominent posters – either wanted Molina to be traded or let go as a free agent in order to collect draft pick compensation, instead. Even some who backed the deal felt the organization had little choice but to "overpay". (Again, here is the link to the 2012 survey, but also be sure to scroll down to read the comments following.)
Where are they now?
The net of the current situation is that Molina has the opportunity to score what should be one final multi-year contract to conclude a highly-decorated career that could end in Cooperstown. The eight-time Gold Glove Award winner’s entire 13-year MLB stint to date has been with St. Louis and he has made it clear that is where he wants to stay.
Ideally, the club would like to keep its franchise icon, too, but is facing a complication perhaps more sticky than Molina’s advancing years. This time around, they finally have what appears to be a viable replacement option already in house. St. Louis' top farmhand at the position and one of the best catching prospects in the game, Carson Kelly, will soon be ready for the majors.
While Molina and the team have the aforementioned mutual option for 2018 to potentially extend his current contract into a sixth year, rarely are such options exercised, as I explained in detail here. There are also a number of very practical reasons why I do not see the option coming into play any time soon.
I highly question why the Molina side would give up negotiating leverage now by agreeing to the option when he wants a long-term deal instead. The Cardinals should also want to wait as long as possible before doing anything, as a downturn by Molina this season would improve their position at the bargaining table. That is why I don't think the option is going to matter.
Learning from Albert?
Regarding contracts, the Cardinals are considered to be a well-run, but cautious organization. As noted by industry observers, they do not have bad contracts compared to other teams. However, that does not mean the club is not going to bend somewhat to try to keep a franchise icon. They will also have a new influx of television money, which coincidentally begins in 2018.
Still, when all is said and done, if getting top dollar matters most to Molina at this stage of his career, there is sure to be another Arte Moreno out there to make Molina feel "like family," as the Angels’ owner’s sales pitch appealed to his close friend Albert Pujols five years ago.
Yet, I can't help but wonder if Molina looks back at what happened to Pujols and wants to avoid going down the same path. Though the catcher would never admit it, he is at a place in his career where his legacy has to be on his mind.
It is a rare opportunity, as one has to go all the way back to Bob Gibson to find the last Cardinals great to have been with the organization all the way from start of career to finish.
A comparable case in Posada
Some question how strong Molina’s free agent market appeal would be. One member of our community suggested that “Not many GMs would possibly risk their career to sign a 35 year old catcher for $15+ million and multiple years.” (Molina will celebrate his 35th birthday this July 13.)
My view is that it does not take many competing offers – in fact, just one is all that is needed.
As I thought about catching icons making the big decision on whether or not to finish their career with the same team, the case of Jorge Posada immediately came to mind.
After Posada's number 20 was retired by the Yankees two summers ago and his monument was unveiled, he retold the story about how close he had come to leaving his career home with the Yankees and move to a National League club as a free agent. It wasn't just any NL club either, but the crosstown Mets, the Yankees' constant competitor for fan interest in the biggest market of all.
At the time, Posada was older than Molina will be this fall - 36 years old – when he ultimately decided to return to the Bronx via a four-year, $52.4 million extension. Let’s also not forget that his then-record-breaking haul for a catcher was secured all the way back in 2007 - 10 years ago!
Granted, the American League has the designated hitter, which created additional playing time opportunity for Posada, but the Mets not having that option did not stop them from bidding aggressively. The Yankees also had a number of DH types already in house and preferred Posada's experience behind the plate.
During his final contract, Posada missed two-thirds of the first of the four years due to injury, then averaged 115 games over his final three seasons. He remained the Yankees’ primary catcher until he became a full-time designated hitter for his last active season in 2011. At that point, he was 39 years of age.
Interestingly, during Posada’s reign, the Bronx Bombers dealt away at least two top catching prospects. In 2004, they flipped Dioner Navarro to Seattle in the Randy Johnson trade. In the later years, starting in at least 2010, trade rumors regularly swirled around Jesus Montero, although he was finally not dealt away until the 2011-2012 off-season.
As a big-leaguer, Montero has been a washout. While Navarro has crafted a 13-year MLB career, during the vast majority of it, he has been as a reserve.
On our message forums, a wide variety of fan opinions have been offered in recent weeks on what to do about Molina. At one extreme are the numbers folks, who point out why it would not be a good business decision to overpay on a multi-year deal for an aging catcher.
The position at the other extreme is to pay Molina whatever it takes to ensure he completes his career with St. Louis. Some in the “re-sign Molina” camp have gone as far as suggesting Kelly be traded to strengthen the Cardinals starting pitching, since the 22-year-old could be blocked for multiple years ahead.
As in most subjects, it seems, I come down somewhere in between the two extremes.
Can it be had both ways?
I think the Cardinals need to find a creative and reasonable way to keep Molina, while also starting to work Kelly into the mix, at least by 2018.
I understand the business case logic that argues against Molina, but his situation is truly unique. Molina's status as potential future Hall of Famer and franchise icon has to be a factor, as it likely was with the Yankees and Posada. I have no idea its weighting from either side of the table this time around, but Molina's Cardinals legacy will almost certainly play into the decisions made.
In negotiations, I think Molina holds the upper hand, as he should, having earned his free agent rights. If the Cardinals offer him an acceptable multi-year contract extension between now and this fall, though, the discussion is over.
If he doesn't get his desired deal by October, he can decide whether to exercise his side of the 2018 option (less likely) or explore free agency (more likely). I doubt the Cardinals would take the hit in the court of fan opinion to be the ones to break up (decline the option) - unless Molina has a terrible 2017 on the field.
Exercising his side of the option and hanging around St. Louis for a second lame duck season in 2018 would seem a risky strategy for Molina. He would be one year closer to the end of his career and could greatly diminish his opportunity to score that final multi-year deal. For that reason, I think his big decision will be made this coming fall.
If Molina reaches the open market, there is a reasonable case to be made for the Cardinals to make him a qualifying offer as a free agent. That way, they would offer their backstop one last chance to return for 2018 or secure a compensatory draft pick if he departs.
In my view, Molina is in the drivers' seat, though it is going to take more time to play out.
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