Yadier Molina is a productive Major League Baseball player who continues to evolve.
Think about it. When he took over the majority of catching duties in 2005, he was a fine defensive catcher but not a Gold Glove backstop. He was an average hitter with little pop. Molina didn't hit 10 home runs in a season until his eighth season. He collected 100 or more hits for the first time in his fourth season.
Molina won his first Gold Glove in his fifth season and cranked double-digit home runs for the first time in his eighth season. He hit .300 for the first time in his fifth season. Molina made the All-Star team in his sixth season. He routinely smacks 20 doubles or more in a season these days.
On Monday at the Winter Warm-Up, as the event was set to close its three-day run at the Hyatt downtown, Molina pledged his loyalty to the only team he's ever played for, the St. Louis Cardinals. Asked about the statement he made two years prior — about playing out the three-year contract that expires after this coming season — Molina added an epilogue to that quote that never found its way to cement. but instead found a sequel-type saying.
"If the Cardinals want me, that's the only team I want to play for. And it's still like that. If they want me ... but if they want to move apart, that's it for me," Molina said.
In a matter of words, Molina said that if the Cardinals will have him for 2021 and possibly 2022, he will put the birds on the bat back on his chest and sit behind home plate. If they decide it's not in their best interests, Molina will call it a career. At the age of 37, which flips to 38 in July, the revered catcher is at peace with his future, placing it in the team's hands.
Here's the thing. This goes beyond stats, projections and past accolades. This is about preserving the legacy of a franchise icon who has a pretty good shot at the Hall of Fame (that is, if the current voters pull their heads away from the area where the sun doesn't shine). This is about setting in motion a series of events where a player begins and ends a storied career in one spot, a rare thing in today's game.
Look, I'm not saying you play the guy if he is hitting .200 and letting every other pitch in the dirt fly behind him to the backstop. I am saying that if Molina is doing "Yadi" things, he keeps the catcher's spot. With apologies to Matt Wieters and Andrew Knizner, they won't give you what Molina can. They won't give you the intangibles necessary to move the needle on young pitchers and struggling relievers late in games. A guy who can give an aging veteran the willpower to reach beyond what is possible.
If Molina gives you the following, you keep playing him:
- Plays 120 games.
- Offers you 10 home runs and a .700 OPS at the plate.
- Gold Glove-caliber defense.
It's as simple as that. If Molina slips, he sits. If he's hurt, he must sit.
Now, those last two guidelines are going to test the mettle of Mike Shildt and his coaching staff. Can they summon the skipper courage to tell Molina that it's in the team's best interests for him to sit and let someone else catch? If that's an issue, the next few years could be treacherous.
But as long as Molina can avoid chronic and seemingly freak thumb injuries and not have Jordan Hicks bounce a baseball off his privates, he should be good to go. When he told the media his knees were in good shape on Monday, I believed him. When he took the excess weight off his body a few years ago, that was a huge move for his longevity. While some cried out it would hinder his power (he hit 38 home runs the past three years combined), they were missing the bigger picture: Molina was helping extend his career by relieving the pressure from his knees. You don't need a fitness certification badge to understand that.
Can you tell me right now that Knizner or Wieters can do what Molina can do in 2020? 2021? Sure, the younger man needs the proper amount of reps, but if a trade comes about and Molina is still strong, the Cardinals can trade Knizner to improve elsewhere. Trading away Carson Kelly didn't hurt them. Why? While Kelly outperformed Molina at the plate, the trade helped you get Paul Goldschmidt, who under-performed by his standards but still produced at the plate.
As long as Molina is worth the time, and the management and front office can be sharp and objective with that ideal, he remains a Cardinal and behind home plate. Ordinary guys don't catch into their late 30's, but then again, Molina isn't ordinary at all.
Now, there will be detractors. Critics who incessantly believe an aging Molina is keeping the Cardinals from making it back to the World Series. It's not a sports social media page without polarizing opinions swimming up on shore every other minute. There will be people who say a better-hitting catcher could have helped the Cardinals win a game or two against Washington in the NLCS-and forget about the lackluster effort from Goldschmidt, Dexter Fowler and several others.
Molina's virtue and plus-ability resides behind the plate, but 20 doubles and 10-15 home runs sure don't hurt. In six of the past nine seasons, Molina has given you just that ... along with six Gold Gloves, including one as recently as 2018.
Let's not call it a done deal yet. And perhaps that is why the team is waiting to pull the trigger on a new contract. They may want to see if he is durable enough at age 37 to make it through age 39. Maybe a deal comes together before the first spring training game. It could happen before April 1. Or it could happen after Oct. 31. As I wrote two weeks ago, it's worth the risk to walk this road for however long it goes.
I do believe Molina wants a third World Series title. I think he needs that vindication, something inside him telling him that he won a title (or at least made it to the Fall Classic) with three different core teams, and with three different managers. Vital proof of his legend.
A legend that won't die any time soon. A legend that continues to evolve.