Yadier Molina Sticking Around for Awhile

click to enlarge Molina, back in his chubbier and neck-tat free days. - commons.wikimedia.org
Molina, back in his chubbier and neck-tat free days.
The Cardinals and catcher Yadier Molina agreed yesterday on a contract extension for 5 years, one reported to be worth $75 million, with an option for a sixth year worth another $15 million. Add in the $7 million Molina is due to make this season, and this becomes the second-largest contract ever given to a catcher, with only Joe Mauer of the Twins eclipsing it. 

There were plenty of reasons to get this deal done, from the quality of the player to preserving some continuity in the face of both manager and pitching coach departures to a desire to avoid another Pujols situation. And really, even at a price tag so steep, locking Molina up was probably the right move. 

Still, there are some reasons not to like this deal. Timing, for one. Length, for another. Dollars, for a third. That's not to say I don't like this deal, but...um, I'm not really sure how to finish that sentence. 

I understand why the Cardinals did this when they did. Molina would have been entering the final year of his deal, and the organization was understandably anxious to avoid going down the same road with Yadi they went down with Albert Pujols. Even beyond the simple headache of dealing with the player, there have been some quarters calling into question the Cards' commitment to winning in light of the club's refusal to give such a franchise icon whatever he wanted to get him to stay. The spectre of another fan favorite going into a lame duck season, hearing the rumblings all year long about whether or not he would walk, certainly had to unappealing to the Cardinals at the very least. 

Added to that is the almost complete lack of catcher depth in the Cards' minor league system. There isn't a single backstop in the system I would be willing to turn to in a year's time and hand them the major league job. There are a handful of interesting free agents-to-be, but how many of them actually reach the open market is anyone's guess, and none of them would be a decided upgrade on Molina. So, public relations hit + no other options? The Cardinals were sort of backed into a bit of a corner. 

But at the same time, the Cardinals just locked up Yadier Molina for five years after this coming season, meaning they are now committed to a catcher with already-balky knees until the 2017 season at least, the year when Molina will turn 35. Worse yet, they just locked up Yadier Molina after a career-best season, at age 29, right smack dab in the peak of his career. Why does that matter? Because it means the Cardinals are paying Yadi for a career year, and it's not at all a certainty he's going to be able to replicate that season again. 

Catcher valuation is one of the prickliest subjects in all of basball. I myself remain an agnostic on the subject of catcher defense, though not an atheist by any means. Dan Moore wrote a very nice piece over at VEB just the other day, when the contract was still mostly a rumor, about the latest innovations in trying to quantify what value a backstop actually adds with his glove. Going by some of those numbers, the Molina deal looks fair. I'm not entirely certain I'm ready to buy in wholeheartedly to those ideas just yet, though. 

The bottom line here is the Cardinals exchanged the risk of watching Molina walk away to Anaheim (or some other team, but that's not nearly as interesting as storyline), for the extra financial hit of signing a player after what is likely a career year. Do I think Yadier Molina is worth the deal he just got? No, I really don't. But it's not a bad contract, either. Do I really want to watch him trying to hobble around the bases at 36 years old and still making $15 million a season? No, I really don't. But that's the cost of doing business in the baseball world. 

If it were up to me, I would have waited. I would have tried to sign Molina after the 2012 season, rather than doing it a full year before I had to. But it's not my money, and the Cardinals clearly don't mind overpaying a bit to keep a cornerstone player around. 

The good news is the Cardinals don't have to worry about filling their major league catching job for the near future. They have an exceedingly popular and very talented player locked in at something resembling just over the market rate. The bad news is they'll be paying said popular and talented player $15 million a year even as his knees break down further and he leaves his peak years. And they committed to all that a full year before they had to. 
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