While St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright is still trying to make up his mind about whether he will pitch in 2020, there seems to be little doubt that the team’s other veteran leader, catcher Yadier Molina, doesn’t plan to hang up the spikes any time soon.
The Cardinals stepped up and paid Molina on his current contract, designed to take the backstop through his prime years. Now is the time for Molina to show his appreciation while paving the way for him to finish his career wearing the Birds on the Bat.
Faced with a payroll choked with bad contracts for Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Brett Cecil, Mike Leake and others, St. Louis could create some financial flexibility for next season by working out an extension with Molina that deferred some of his $20 million 2020 salary down the line. One suggestion is a deal that would cut Molina’s salary to $10 million next year, pay him $10 million in 2020 and 2021 and give the Cardinals a $10 million option for 2022 that comes with a $5 million buyout.
Essentially, Molina would get another guaranteed $35 million instead of the $20 million he’s committed to now with a chance to make $40 million if he is still on top of his game at age 40. What the Cardinals would get is Molina for half price each of the next three seasons with the possibility of adding a fourth year at the same price.
Sure, there aren’t many catcher who play top flight baseball in their late thirties. But Molina hasn’t shown any serious signs of deterioration. He hit a very respectable .270 in 2019 with an on-base percentage on par with what he has done the previous two years. Molina still is an ace at handling the pitching staff and is the undisputed leader of the team. He willed the Cardinals to an improbable comeback in the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves and he’s going to be instrumental in grooming his successor.
Knocked for refusing to rest in the past, Molina could conceivably be the starter behind the plate in 2020, play about half the time behind the plate in 2021 and then start to give way to Andrew Knizner as an understudy in 2022. Even as Knizner takes control, I could still see Yadi catch 60-70 games and throw in a few appearances here and there at first base, third base or as pinch hitter.
Third base? Sure. Molina often works out at third base during practice and I have little doubt that he would be a better fielder there than Matt Carpenter. I don’t know if I would want to make him the starter at the hot corner at this point of his career. But I could see Molina come into games as a pinch hitter and then stay in the contest at third base.
Another benefit to keeping Molina around over the long haul is the fact that Major League Baseball will add a 26th roster spot in 2020. While some teams will likely add an additional pitcher to compensate for (ridiculous) rules that force relievers to face multiple hitters, it stands to reason that other teams might chose to go with a third catcher. If that was the case for St. Louis, Molina could sub in behind the plate and not leave his team without protections should he get hurt. Yadi could influence more games while reducing the number of innings he records but coming out of games as part of a strategic roster shuffle or by entering them at a vital moment either as a pinch hitter or a defensive replacement.
Payroll flexibility for the Cardinals?
While the amount of money the Cardinals would save by renegotiating Molina’s deal may seem relatively insignificant, it could be the flexibility the team needs to add a difference maker.
If Adam Wainwright retires, the Cardinals would stand to save $40 million from expiring contracts including his pact and those of Marcell Ozuna, Michael Wacha, Luke Gregerson, Matt Wieters and the money they were responsible for to Jedd Gyorko and Leake. However, the Birds have to Pay raises totaling $29 million to Carpenter, Paul Goldschmidt, Miles Mikolas, Kolten Wong and Jose Martinez. That’s only $11 million to play with — and it doesn’t include raises that will have to be paid to players through arbitration.
You’re not going to get an impact player for $11 million. But if you throw in $10 million in savings on Molina and the Cardinals were willing to increase the payroll a bit, they would have enough in the annual budget to get a top flight free agent or to trade for a marquee player.
With the free agent market in deep freeze the past three years, this could be a great time for St. Louis to snag the kind of star player who can win games and put fans in the seat for a bargain price.
That flexibility might not even give the Cardinals room to add additional help. They might need it just to hold serve on a team that made it to the National League Championship Series last year. If Wainwright decides to come back for the same contract he had last year and Ozuna decides to accept a qualifying offer from St. Louis, the Cardinals would be in the red compared to last year just to maintain the same roster.
At the very least, I would hate to see the Cardinals retreat when they seem to be on the rise. The team certainly needs to improve offensively, so it’s hard to accomplish that by deleting your cleanup hitter. The strength of the team is its pitching, so it’s hard to imagine it would make sense to remove its most consistent starter and the mentor to its fragile, young hurlers.
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Scott Wuerz is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan. The Cheap Seats blog is written from his perspective as a fan and is designed to spark discussion among fans of the Cardinals and other MLB teams. Sources supporting his views and opinions are linked. If you’re looking for Cardinals news and features, check out the BND’s Cardinals section.