photo: Yadier Molina (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
A current theme across St. Louis Cardinals-related social media, sports columns and radio talk shows is the potential return of free agent catcher Yadier Molina to the club for 2021.
A common message is that the Cardinals should get the deal done with the 38-year-old.
The demand for Molina’s services across the game, outside of St. Louis, remains unclear. Some suggest teams are not as focused on Molina until J.T. Realmuto, the undisputed top free agent catcher in the market, gets his expected long-term, big-money deal. Some teams initially rumored to be interested in Molina have since satisfied their needs.
Others suspect that interest is soft because clubs may assume Molina will be returning to Busch Stadium for 2021. What good is it to be used as leverage for the catcher to squeeze more money from the Cardinals?
However, anyone assuming the latter should take heed of the words of Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. as stated this past weekend during his Winter Warm-Up presentation.
After recognizing Molina and his long-time battery mate and fellow free agent Adam Wainwright as “iconic” Cardinals and praising them as exemplary teammates and leaders, DeWitt closed with a warning.
“We have made both offers (for 2021 contracts),” the chairman said. “If others offer more, they may choose to take it.”
The public has no idea of the details of that offer as presented to the catcher. All we have an earlier report that the Molina camp labeled it “ridiculous”.
Coming from the perspective of the catcher’s prior $20 million salary in each of the last three years, I get it. On the other hand, that was then and this is now. So, let’s look at some current realities.
Free agents moving
The aforementioned market factors are not affecting other free agent catchers in the tier below Realmuto.
On Wednesday, Jason Castro was the latest free agent backstop to come to terms. The 33-year-old is signing with Houston Astros on a two-year, $7 million contract, plus incentives.
The veteran could have been a player to whom the Cardinals might pivot to man the position in 2021 alongside Andrew Knizner if Molina signs elsewhere. That is no longer an option.
The matter of money
For Molina and the Cardinals, it is one thing for the public, columnists and radio hosts to call for the two sides to come to terms. In generic terms, few would disagree.
However, as they say, the devil is in the details. It is quite another matter to set a financial target, or even more specifically, a limit.
Let’s use the Castro contract to consider what a comparable Molina offer might look like.
Fangraphs cites three different projection systems for WAR for 2021 – ZiPS, Steamer and Depth Charts. Averaging the three for Castro yields an expected WAR of 0.8. Molina’s comparable projections average 1.1 WAR. (As readers hopefully know, WAR encompasses both offensive and defensive contributions.)
Extending Castro’s $3.5 MM 2021 salary to Molina would suggest a $4.8 MM market-based value for the 38-year-old.
‘But wait!’ – Cardinals fans exclaim.
‘Molina is a legitimate box office draw as a future Hall of Famer,’ they say.
While I accept this, I highly question whether it will be significant to team revenues during a 2021 season in which Busch Stadium is expected to be restricted to 28% of capacity for at least half the schedule – and perhaps longer.
In terms of his legacy, no matter what happens in the future, Molina will don a red jacket five years after he retires and will wear it for the remainder of his life. That is certain, as would be a Cardinals logo on his cap when inducted into the Hall of Fame.
A mournful, but relevant example to consider…
Hank Aaron is one of the greatest I had the pleasure of seeing play live. May the most iconic Brave ever rest in peace.
(For #stlcards fans, the fact he spent his last two seasons with the Brewers did not diminish his legacy one bit. He remains the greatest Brave of all time.)
— Brian Walton (@B_Walton) January 22, 2021
‘On the field, Molina has incremental value that cannot be measured. His handling of the pitching staff, years of experience behind the plate and clutch hitting set him apart,’ we are reminded.
Granted, but of those advantages, only the first is a benefit specific to St. Louis. Molina would be just as experienced and essentially the same hitter no matter where he plays.
So, how much legacy value should be assigned to Molina as a Cardinal only?
I posed this question to members of The Cardinal Nation’s free forum. One respected poster, stlcard25, replied that he would “easily” give Molina two years, $16 million.
Let’s analyze what an $8 MM per year offer would mean.
Using the Castro WAR comp, $4.8 MM of Molina’s salary would be value-based. The other $3.2 MM would be his Cardinals-only legacy adder. In other words, 40% of his 2021 salary would be simply because he is Yadier Molina.
How’s that for respect?
Year two of any deal for Molina presents both a potential differentiator for St. Louis and increased risk. During the 2022 season, Molina will celebrate his 40th birthday, and the miles on his body can be measured by a projected 2,200 games caught by then.
If one was proposing a two-year contract, would it not make more sense to offer less for the second season? Wouldn’t an ideal 2022 scenario be for Molina’s successor to transition into more regular playing time?
In that case, over 50% of Molina’s salary for the upcoming season would be above and beyond his comparable market value to Castro – $4.8 MM base plus $5.2 MM additional.
Is that ridiculous? If you think so, in which direction?
What is your take? What would be a fair offer to Molina, encompassing all factors? Stop by The Cardinal Nation’s free forum to join the ongoing discussion.
January 26 updates
Realmuto came to terms to return to the Phillies on a five-year, $115.5 MM contact. His $23.1 MM average annual value (AAV) is the highest of any catcher in history.
It also provides another data point for the Molina negotiations.
Using Fangraphs' 2021 WAR projections and Jason Castro's recent contract, it suggests Yadi's base salary should be $4.8 MM. Now, using J.T. Realmuto's $23.1 MM AAV and his WAR projection, Yadi's comparable value this season would be $6.2 MM (plus his #stlcards legacy adder). pic.twitter.com/ZbJUGovHAA
— Brian Walton (@B_Walton) January 26, 2021
Message board community member jj-cf-stl broadens the aperture and comes to a similar value conclusion for Molina. The data below includes Realmuto as well as Wilson Ramos, who came to terms with Detroit on a one-year, $2 million deal on January 27.
“Eight catchers have signed and their AAVs total $46.6 million for 2021, a $5.825 MM average value. The same eight catchers’ projected fWAR is 1.11, using the average of Fangraphs’ three projections, per player” he wrote.
As a reminder, Molina’s average projected fWAR for 2021 is 1.10, making this average catching comp almost dead on.
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