One of the most talked-about topics in St. Louis over the past few years has been the playing time of All Star catcher and future Hall of Famer (you heard that right, Jeff Passan), Yadier Molina. How much should he play? How long will he last catching 140 games behind the plate for the St. Louis Cardinals?
Molina caused a mini tsunami earlier this month when he lashed out on Instagram about the conversation between his manager Mike Matheny and a columnist about whether he was tired and needed rest. Owner Bill DeWitt Jr. didn't care for it and General Manager Michael Girsch said the club would handle it. A couple days later, Molina posted a picture of Jose Oquendo and himself during spring training, stating he missed the Cardinals coach.
Now, you can state that this was all overblown and be near the intersection of justified and accuracy in doing so, but that doesn't mean there weren't a few things to be learned from it.
First, Molina isn't ready to hand the baton off to rookie catcher Carson Kelly — and not should he be. In case you've forgotten, 2016 was a huge year at the plate for the 35-year-old catcher, and just because he didn't walk away with his ninth Gold Glove doesn't mean Molina was losing it behind the plate. Molina also hit .307 with an OPS+ of 111 (100 is average) and the .444 slugging percentage was his highest since 2013. In short, Molina still had it.
The Cardinals rewarded their leader with a three-year $60 million contract in the offseason, locking in the final seasons of Molina's reign in St. Louis. When you pay a man $20 million per season to play, the signal isn't flashing, "Time Share Status". You are paying the man to play, lead, and keep doing what he is doing.
Second, the Cardinals aren't even putting out the signal that youth is taking over the operation, so why would Kelly start to bump Molina this year? Young guns Harrison Bader and Luke Weaver (two players with little else to prove in the minors) were sent back down in favor of older players this month. The Cards handed Dexter Fowler, 31, a five-year deal this past offseason. Adam Wainwright has another year left on his deal. Two players in their late 20s — Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez — are enjoying the years of their lives.
The Cardinals also didn't trade Lance Lynn for prospects at the deadline, giving off the aura of a team with some hunger left in the tank to chase glory this year. So, if the youth isn't fully engaged, Molina playing the majority of the starts isn't foreign language just yet; it's strict protocol, which is good for a team lacking an overall long term plan at the moment.
Third, the social media outburst may have been Molina's reaction to the constant chatter about his playing time, not an individual strike towards his manager. Imagine having a good season, being given an extension, yet seeing discussion about when you were going to move to the side. It would be nauseating from Molina's point of view. Like his fellow long time Cardinal, Adam Wainwright, Molina isn't done just yet.
Just look at this week's action against the Kansas City Royals. Molina has home runs in back-to-back games, driving in seven runs, including the game-winning grand slam on Wednesday night. Sure, the talk of the town today is whether the stray cat that ran across the field found a home, but the real story should be Molina's outburst in August.
After an impressive June and lukewarm July, Molina is 12-30 in the early going of August, with half of those hits going for extra bases. The 14 home runs are the highest total since he hit 22 in 2012, and his batting average is hanging around .282. The OPS+ leaves something to be desired (97), but Molina is heating up at the right time. I'd like to see Kelly play once or twice a week, but let's slow our excitement about a kid with minimal MLB experience and no guaranteed success awaiting.
Question: If Kelly takes Molina's spot, would he be an All Star in 2018 or 2019, and acquit himself at the plate? Molina has held up his 2016 form at the plate and isn't breaking down behind it, nearly throwing out two runners in a row on the bases before his huge grand slam during Wednesday's game. Molina was also an All Star this year, marking the eighth trip to the midsummer contest.
The only thing that can extinguish a clubhouse fire is winning, as the 2006 season showed. Tony La Russa and Scott Rolen were in each other's heads over playing time and status-and then winning shut everyone up.
Molina's arrogance may have been what he needed and something to spark the Carinals under a manager with few answers these days. I wouldn't suggest a social media brigade as the cure to any player's ego bruising, but in this particular case, Molina did what he felt he needed to do. It wasn't pretty, or perfect, but some winning has arisen from it, and his play has been an integral piece, so roll with it.
He surely isn't tired at the moment, on pace to catch another 145 games this season and hit .280 with potentially 18-20 home runs. Molina may be older and not an easy bet to win the Gold Glove every year, but the only thing he is tired of is hearing his name grouped with excuses and playing time. The man is a horse riding as smooth as ever, so let Kelly watch and learn from the bench, or send the kid back to Memphis to play.
The only thing better than an ambitious rookie is a veteran refusing to go quietly into the night. For the foreseeable future (unless a full-blown youth movement is launched), the Cardinals are Yadier Molina's team, and lately, that is paying dividends in a suddenly exciting division battle. For the time being, let's table the playing time discussion.