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Could 2017 be the last call for Yadier Molina at Busch Stadium?

Nevermind which free agents the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t sign during the 2016-17 off-season.

I’m more worried that the Cardinals might part ways with a homegrown franchise icon at this time next year.

Although it seems like just yesterday that former St. Louis skipper Tony La Russa predicted that a then 20-year-old Yadier Molina was going to be a huge star someday, we’re undoubtedly much closer to the end of the line for Yadi than the beginning. But there are reasons to believe this could be Molina’s last stop with the Cardinals.

The perennial Gold Glover and All-Star has a guaranteed contract for the upcoming season and the Redbirds hold an option to keep him on the roster for the 2018 season at $15 million. But there are two obstacles to that option being picked up:

1) Molina, as well as he has held up over the long haul, is going to be 35 midway through the 2017 season. That’s ancient for a major league starting catcher. Former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was 33 when the Cardinals let him walk away as a free agent, and he was out of baseball due to an accumulation of injuries by the age Molina will be this year.

2) The catcher of the future, Carson Kelly, made it to the big leagues at the end of the 2016 campaign and could be ready to take over as the starter in St. Louis by 2018. The Cardinals may not want to risk a repeat of the tense situation that occurred when superstar shortstop Ozzie Smith refused to fade away quietly and subsequently made life miserable for his intended replacement Royce Clayton.

It might make sense in a lot of ways for the Cardinals to pick up Molina’s option in order to ease Kelly slowly into the starting role. But it doesn’t seem Yadi is content to give up his regular gig. He’s already made noise about wanting a contract extension from St. Louis. I’d be shocked if the Cardinals, who steadfastly refused to offer perhaps the second-best player in franchise history a past-his-prime deal to remain with the Redbirds, volunteer to pay Molina big money to play past his 36th birthday.

While some of the best catchers in baseball history have extended their careers by moving to another position — legends Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and Carlton Fisk as well as current players Buster Posey and Joe Mauer — those players are sluggers whose bats were among their best assets. Yadi’s primary value comes from his defense and his ability to manage a pitching staff. While he’s a good hitter, I’m not sure he’s a $15 million a year slugger. If St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak didn’t think Matt Holliday was worth $17 million for his bat at age 36, he’s probably not going to think the relatively light-hitting Molina is worth near that much.

Yadi has already made noise about wanting a contract extension. I’m sure he wants a commitment from the Cardinals as he sees Kelly move into position to take his job. And I’m also willing to bet that he wants to be paid accordingly.

While there are compelling reasons to let him walk, I think there are a lot of reasons beyond statistics why the Cardinals ought to consider keeping Molina in St. Louis for the rest of his playing career.

First, Molina is an iconic player. Fans buy tickets, specifically, for the purpose of watching him play. Second, even if he doesn’t start the vast majority of games, he’s valuable as a leader. He’s a great example of how to do things right; he has a wonderful work ethic (I’m not talking about when he occasionally jogs to first base in July to save his aching knees, but about the way he takes a beating practicing fielding balls in the dirt and plays through injuries), and he can teach youngsters about what it takes to be big league players. Finally, Molina would make a wonderful coach or manager in the future. It would be a shame to let him finish his career with another organization and end up teaching some other team’s players would he could be passing on to young Cardinals.

I sure hope Yadi has such a good season that the front office doesn’t have a choice but to keep him in St. Louis for at least the 2018 season. But it seemed early last year that picking up Holliday’s option was merely a formality. But he was injured when he was hit by a pitch and that seemed to be the final nail in his Cardinals coffin.

The Birds said goodbye to Albert Pujols after the 2011 season, then Chris Carpenter a short time later. Matt Holliday was sent away after 2016. It seems Yadi and Adam Wainwright won’t be around much longer. That’s a lot of talent to walk out the door.

Molina might not be able to play forever. For sentimental reasons, I’d like to see him retire as a Cardinal. But, more importantly, I’d like to see him kept in the organization for life to make sure his incredible knowledge of the game is put to use developing the next generation of St. Louis ballplayers and helping the Cardinals to win games.

I’m not ready for the Molina era to be over.

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