I’m not a big fan of the World Baseball Classic, as I have stated in this space several times.
The last thing I want to see is St. Louis Cardinals star catcher Yadier Molina or ace starting pitcher Carlos Martinez injured in exhibition games that have nothing to do with helping the team that pays them millions of dollars succeed.
This week, another complication to the routine of spring training arose when Yadi’s big brother, Bengie Molina, spouted off about the fact that the Redbirds haven’t done anything to resolve the issue of the St. Louis catcher’s request for a contract extension. While Yadier Molina is absent from Cardinals spring training, where he could be meeting with the team about a pact that would keep him in red for the rest of his career, his brother – who claimed to be speaking for him – announced that the Yadi would have no problem signing a big contract to play elsewhere if the Birds don’t cough up the cash.
The elder Molina later walked it back a bit and said he wasn’t actually speaking for Yadi, he was just speculating. Still, they’re brothers. So, one would have plenty of reason to believe Bengie knows what he’s talking about.
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The time to get contracts done is during spring training. Otherwise, negotiations are probably going to get shelved until the fall. And, by then, Yadi could hit the open market, greatly decreasing the chances of working out an extension.
It’s a tough situation for the Cardinals. Yadi is 34 and obviously on the back half – if not quarter – of his career. Yet he’s an iconic player and, obviously, the leader and heart and soul of this team. Some people are quick to dismiss Molina, saying that prospect catcher Carson Kelly can just slide behind the plate in place of a man who has been the best defensive catcher of his generation. But people think the Redbirds forgot how to play defense last year when Jose Oquendo wasn’t around because of knee trouble. What’s going to happen to their pitching staff without the guy who calls the pitches, calms the nerves and develops the plan of attack behind the dish?
I have little doubt that Kelly would benefit greatly from a long and gradual transition from being a minor leaguer with potential to a backup catcher to eventual starter. Being a catcher is a tough job. It takes toughness, confidence and experience because, like the pitcher, he’s involved in every play when his team is in the field. Unlike the pitcher, the catcher has to be out there every day to carry the burden of responsibility.
The Cardinals are reluctant to dole out money to players in the decline phase of their career. And I get that. But Yadier Molina isn’t just another player. He’s a guy that they’ll want to remain part of the franchise after his playing days are over. Yesterday, while sitting in the stands at Roger Dean Stadium, I heard a fan say something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. He said that Molina might likely take over for Matheny as manager of the Redbirds someday, just as he took over for him as starting catcher nearly a decade and a half ago.
“He might as well,” the fan said. “Everybody knows that he really runs the team, anyway.”
St. Louis has been fortunate to have a lot of great players wear its uniform over the last 125 years. If you put together a list of the top 10 Cardinals careers of all-time, how could Molina not be on it? He’s played in four World Series with the Cardinals, he’s been the team leader in one of the most successful eras in franchise history, he’s won the National League Platinum Glove as the best all-around defensive player in baseball four out of the six years it has existed and the National League Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award twice. He’s a seven-time All-Star, ranks first among active catchers in percentage of would-be base stealers caught, won a silver slugger and ranks 39th among active major league players in batting average, which is pretty impressive for a catcher not known for legging out a lot of infield hits.
There may be players who have put together better individual seasons or spans of three or four years than Molina. But there are precious few players who played at his level in a Cardinals uniform for a decade or more.
My top 10:
1) Stan Musial – 22 seasons, .331 batting average, 475 homers, 3 MVP awards, 23 All-Star Games 4 World Series appearances
2) Albert Pujols – 11 seasons, .328 batting average, 445 homers, 3 MVP awards, 9 All-Star Games, 3 World Series appearances
3) Bob Gibson – 17 seasons, 251 wins, 2.91 career ERA, 2 Cy Young Awards, 1 MVP award, 3 World Series appearances
4) Rogers Hornsby – 13 seasons, .359 batting average, 193 homers, 1 MVP award, 1 World Series appearance, manager
5) Frank Frisch – 11 seasons, .312 batting average, 1 MVP award, 4 World Series appearances, manager
6) Lou Brock – 16 seasons, .297 batting average, 888 stolen bases, 6 All-Star Games, 3 World Series appearances
7) Ozzie Smith – 15 seasons, .272 batting average, 433 stolen bases, 15 All-Star Games, 12 Gold Gloves, 3 World Series appearances
8) Red Schoendienst – 15 seasons as a player, .289 batting average, 9 All-Star Games, 1 World Series as a player.
9) Yadier Molina – 13 seasons, .285 batting average, 4 Platinum Gloves, 8 Gold Gloves, 4 World Series appearances.
10) Ken Boyer – 11 seasons, .293 batting average, 255 homers, 1 MVP Award, 7 All-Star Games, 1 World Series.
Honorable mentions include Dizzy Dean, Marty Marion, Walker Cooper, Pepper Martin, Willie McGee, Jim Edmonds, Enos Slaughter, Adam Wainwright, Ted Simmons and Curt Flood.
Yadi isn’t just another guy. If there is one positive of the World Baseball Classic, it’s that it has shown Molina is still a superstar when matched up with the best players of the game, even at 34 years old.
So, while they are known for watching their nickels and dimes, I hope the Cardinals also keep in mind the value that Molina could have to this organization beyond his playing days, both as a coach and as a St. Louis legend who should always be remembered as a Redbird.
If he’s reasonable and if he wants to remain with St. Louis, he ought to be afforded that opportunity.
He’s a player who very well might have a statue in his likeness standing outside of Busch Stadium.