Defending Yadier Molina

As 2011 became 2012, I predicted that catcher Yadier Molina’s contract situation will be the second-biggest story of the New Year for the St. Louis Cardinals, behind Adam Wainwright’s comeback from elbow surgery. Based on early returns, I may have had the two reversed.

Since that article appeared, Molina ducked the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up fan festival for the second consecutive year amid speculation that he was upset over the departure of his friend Albert Pujols via free agency.

Said to be looking trim and fit, Molina reported to Cardinals spring training camp in Jupiter, Fla. a week early. The Post-Dispatch’s Joe Strauss was there to ask the contract questions I and probably every other reporter at Winter Warm-Up wanted to pose; questions whose answers so many have been yearning to hear.

Readers could find both the positive and the negative in the catcher’s response. For me, the entire situation was summed up in two consecutive paragraphs.

“I’m open to staying here. I love the city. I love the fans. I love the ballpark. But it’s out of my hands,” Molina said. “Whatever they like to do is how it is. They let Albert go. It’s business for the team, too. It’s out of my hands.”

The Cardinals have engaged Molina’s agent, Melvin Roman, in preliminary talks about an extension. Though Molina would prefer the matter be resolved before opening day, he won’t enforce Pujols’ mandate that negotiations be resolved before his official report date to camp.

Those already worried that Molina will follow his friend Albert’s free-agent path out of St. Louis this fall immediately lodged onto the dually-emphasized phrase, “It’s out of my hands,” words very similar to ones Pujols uttered more than once in recent years.

Even before this latest news, almost one in every five Cardinals fans were worried enough to consider trading Molina, according to a January 20 poll here. I expect that polarized minority will grow in size and volume as 2012 unfolds.

On the positive side, Molina’s agent and the Cardinals will apparently continue to talk about a new deal throughout the season if necessary. That is very important and should not be under-emphasized.

On one level, Molina saying his future is out of hands is laughable, on another, it is completely understandable.

It is out of his hands until the Cardinals make a fair offer for his continued services – though there are certainly actions he and his agent can take to facilitate the process both before and after an offer is on the table.

The Cardinals have to be careful, too, as they try to assess whether Molina’s asking price resides within their comfort zone. At this stage of the game, making an offer perceived as insulting can be more damaging than not making one at all. Those who think the Cardinals are in control of the situation – willing to snap their fingers and close the deal – are incredibly naive.

There is plenty of time remaining for both sides to talk. The fact that Molina is in spring camp early, seemingly in good shape and ready to play baseball is a positive sign.

The fact that he is apparently willing to let his agent and the Cardinals work on his contract while he focuses on his job is another good thing, as far as I am concerned.

It is most unlikely that either side will be providing regular updates on the progress of their negotiations, so the impatient need to deal with that. Still, at some point this year, it would not be surprising to me for a press conference to be announced out of the blue during which a new deal is announced.

Yet if that doesn’t happen and Molina ultimately decides to test free agency this fall – as did Pujols and Matt Holliday among others before him – that is his right; just as it is the right of the Cardinals to set a limit as to how much they will offer their catcher and to determine the best time to make their move(s). (Through a recent set of polls here, a five-year, $65 million offer won out as the fans’ best offer to Molina.)

In the meantime, I would find it hard to believe that anyone worth listening to does not believe the 2012 Cardinals will be a better team with Molina than without. Right now, isn’t that what it is all about – fielding the 25 players that give the team the best chance of repeating as World Champions?

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