The Cardinals haven't had to worry about who was going to take the bulk of the duty behind home plate for more than a decade.
But it seems like 2012 could mark the end of a remarkable line.
Mike Matheny and Yadier Molina have combined to give the Redbirds seven seasons of Gold Glove defense over the last 12 seasons. But Matheny is sitting in the manager's seat these days while Molina is in the touch situation of being 29 years old with 7,668 2/3 innings behind the plate on his odometer as he enters the last season of his Cardinals contract.
Simply put, speculationt that Molina is a threat to bolt to California after best pal Albert Pujols are no joke. Molina's in the exact same spot as Pujols was -- he's still in his prime, but the club is going to have to pay him a substantial rate well past his best before date if they want to keep him in the fold.
At $7.5 million this season, it's certain that Yadi is going to want a raise.
His three best offensive seasons have come in the last four seasons, he's been an All-Star the last three years in a row and his role as a leader has greatly increased. He'll be especially needed to help guide the pitching staff now that Dave Duncan is no longer in the picture.
I'm guessing Yadi is going to need at least a four-year deal totalling in the neighborhood of $40 million to write his name on the line of a Cardinals contract. And I'm not sure what the likelihood is that the Birds will be willing to pay a catcher $10 million or more until he's 34 years old.
The problem with Yadi is, despite the fact his offense has improved, his defense is his calling card. He's not Johnny Bench or Yogi Berra -- players that moved to other positions after their bodies were too beaten down to continue to catch because their hitting justified staying in the line-up.
The Cardinals have a couple of options on the roster for back-ups. The question is - are any of these guys viable successors to Molina?
Bryan Anderson was once a top prospect in the St. Louis farm system. But his mediocre defense soured former skipper Tony La Russa and, despite the fact that he played well in an emergency call-up in 2010 Anderson has never really had a chance to prove himself in the big leagues. That situation changes completely now that the former catcher Matheny is in charge. It's his job to teach Anderson how to handle the glove and the pitching staff and to redeem Anderson's prospect status.
Koyie Hill is an eight-year big league veteran who has a good glove -- but he can't hit a lick with a .211 career average. He's the emergency fallback guy should the kids not come through. But he's not the future.
Tony Cruz might be the only guy in the group who is capable of becoming St. Louis' starter in 2013. The Birds opted to bring the kid up last season when in needed an injury replacement -- over the more experienced Anderson -- and he performed well both at and behind the plate. In 65 at-bats he hit .262 with six important and very clutch RBIs.
Steven Hill is an extreme dark horse candidate for a roster spot. He's going to be 27 before spring training is over and he's only had three at-bats in the majors. Of course, he did make the most of it, homering for his only major league hit.
Luis de la Cruz, in his third try at Advanced Class A Palm Beach, finally started to show he could hit well enough to move up the ladder in 2011 with a .276 batting average an 18 batted in through 46 games. He's got some talent. But he's a loooooooong way away from the big leagues.
Cody Stanley, a fourth-round selection in the 2010 draft, he's hit .284 in two seasons. But he's not a factor in the 2012 back-up catcher derby with the highest rung he's achieved on the organizational ladder is Class A Quad Cities.
Robert Stock is a step ahead of Stanley on the race to Busch Stadium. A second-round selection in the 2009 draft, Stock spent the bulk of his time last season at Advanced Class A Palm Beach. There he hit .262 in 42 games.