If future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina remains fresh and ready to play, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny plans to ride him from start to finish.
Matheny expressed exasperation and frustration Monday when the subject of Molina’s playing time surfaced in a question and answer session with members of the media at the Cardinals’ 21st annual Winter Warm-Up at Hyatt Regency St. Louis at The Arch.
The perception is that the Cardinals always are looking for an opportunity to rest Molina, a notion Matheny outright dismisses.
“It’s an annual deal with you guys,” Matheny said. “I’m going to continue to tell you, my job description is to win games. If I’ve got a player I feel is going to help us win games and that I feel is able to answer the bell, he’s going to be in the lineup.
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“I’ll continue to get beat up about this. But until my job description changes and it’s not about winning games, then at that point maybe we’ll have a different conversation. But the conversation stays the same. We’re going to put the best team out there each particular day. Not trying to hurt anybody, but also not drawing reservations because of some information that’s out there that says that we should back off. I don’t buy it.”
Molina, 34, prides himself in playing every day, and last season he appeared in a career-high 147 games. He batted .307 – his fifth season over .300 –with 38 doubles, eight home runs and 58 RBIs.
I think if people have enjoyed the last several seasons of watching one of the best catchers in the game, I think if people enjoy watching this team continue to compete and be one of the contenders in the National League, we have to realize the importance of what Yadi does back there.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny on catcher Yadier Molina
Most important, Molina batted .365 in the second half of the season, supporting Matheny’s claim that the seven-time All-Star doesn’t need more bench time.
“That’s the goal,” Molina said of the fast finish. “That’s what the offseason workouts do to you when you do it right. That’s my plan in the offseason – work hard and try to play as many games as I can. I feel good, I feel strong.”
Molina’s defense slipped in the eyes of some, as he matched a career-high with eight passed balls and threw out just 18 of 85 basestealers (21 percent).
“I think if people have enjoyed the last several seasons of watching one of the best catchers in the game, I think if people enjoy watching this team continue to compete and be one of the contenders in the National League, we have to realize the importance of what Yadi does back there,” Matheny said.
“You can’t have it both ways.”
Matheny agreed that Molina’s strong finish to last year was validation that the team is observing Molina closely. If he’s prepared to play, Matheny will continue to write Molina’s name in the lineup.
“I think a lot of it is just watching. You watch him close,” Matheny said. “The offensive side ... it was obvious he was as strong at the end of the season as he was at any other point.”
He made great throws. We just didn’t do a good job (holding runners). It’s funny, getting feedback from the pitching staff, how much they’re putting that on their own shoulders, that it’s something they have to fix. They realize this is a Gold Glove catcher that should have won another (one) if we could have done a little better job managing the running games.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny on the pitchers holding baserunners
Defensively, some of Molina’s throwing statistics were skewed by Cardinals pitchers’ inability to hold runners close. In the past, their success in that department combined with Molina’s strong and accurate arm were deadly to opponents who tried to be too aggressive.
“He made great throws,” Matheny said. “We just didn’t do a good job (holding runners). It’s funny, getting feedback from the pitching staff, how much they’re putting that on their own shoulders, that it’s something they have to fix. They realize this is a Gold Glove catcher that should have won another (one) if we could have done a little better job managing the running game.”
Molina isn’t pointing fingers.
“I’ve got plenty of confidence and trust in my pitchers and my pitching coach, (Derek) Lilliquist,” Molina said. “They’re going to do their job. I have to do mine. I don’t blame anybody except me. Right now, I’m working on it to try to get better.”
San Francisco’s Buster Posey won the Gold Glove, something Matheny said didn’t sit well with Molina.
Molina, who signed 400 autographs after arriving late to the Warm-Up on Monday, acknowledged the disappointment.
“It is,” he said. “When you feel like you win the Gold (Glove) and it didn’t go your way, it makes you work harder,” Molina said. “That’s where I am right now. I’m concentrating to try to win it back again. I always say you’re concentrating on your team to try to win the World Series, but at the same time, personal stuff is in my mind. Right now, I’m working hard and we’ll see what happens.”
Speaking of Molina, Matheny said the Gold Glove should be “his award.”
“We kind of saw it coming this year,” Matheny said of Molina not winning the award, which he had earned for eight consecutive seasons. “I wear that, too. When I see that it didn’t come, I take responsibility for that. I control the running game. It’s something I think is a shame because he was much better defensively than any of the statistics show.
“I also know what that does to him. This guy is as motivated as any guy I have ever seen. He’s going to be an animal when we show up to spring training. He’s going to want it back.”
.307/.360/.427 Molina slash line in 2016
What does a more determined Molina look like?
“That’s a good question,” Matheny said. “I think we’re going to find here pretty soon. We know he’s going to be in great shape. He plays with an edge. He prepares that way. He has that edge all winter long. Maybe something like this continues to push him. Every player, as he gets older, the demands get greater. It doesn’t take much to push Yadi.”
Matheny acknowledged the obvious: Baseball players have a “shelf life,” and even Molina will eventually yield to age and physical limitations.
“Right now, this guy works really hard to be able to continue to answer the bell,” Matheny said. “He’s doing it well. We’ll watch him. I think we have some good options, guys who can give him some relief. When it doesn’t look right, he’s not going to play. But when it does, I can’t think of another player who can be as impactful as what Yadi can when things are right.”
The Cardinals will have a capable backup in 2017 after signing Eric Fryer on Dec. 12. Fryer played in 24 games with them last year and batted .368 (14-for-38) before being picked up on waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Carson Kelly, one of the Cardinals’ top prospects, also is available. Kelly, however, is considered the catcher of the future and will likely start the season at Class AAA Memphis.