photo: Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)
I have been asked the following question in multiple forums – both before and since Wednesday, when Yadier Molina’s widely reported comments about definitively planning to keep playing in 2021 were published at ESPN (and written about here at The Cardinal Nation).
“How much should the St. Louis Cardinals offer Molina for next season?”
First of all, we know the floor if any deal is struck that would be considered an extension to his current three-year, $60 million contract. In that case, his salary in 2021 would have to be at least $16 million. This is mandated in the Cooperative Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between Major League Baseball’s owners and players. (A two-year extension could be for no less than $28.8 million.)
I have been on record even prior to last November that I feel a $16 million or higher annual salary would be a bad business decision by the Cardinals. (If you want to read further about why, click here.)
A poster at The Cardinal Nation’s free forum stated that his high offer would be $10 million.
On one hand, that might appear disrespectful for a franchise icon and potential Hall of Famer. After all, it would represent a 50 percent pay cut for Molina’s age 38-39 season.
Fair enough, but on the other hand, only two other catchers in all of Major League Baseball currently earn more than $10 million per season.
Here is the entire list:
Molina – $20 MM
Buster Posey – $19.875 MM
Yasmani Grandal – $18.25 MM
Now, you may think this is a cop out, but I would not make the final call today, here in April, as to what my offer to the catcher for 2021 would be.
I would want to see how Molina produces at age 37-38 this year. If he is injured or his results drop off, that is going to be reflected in the size of my offer. On the other hand, if he plays especially well in 2020, I would recognize that, too.
Barring a huge step upward in performance by Molina this year, I would likely not offer $10 million guaranteed. Instead, I would start with a lower base and build in significant appearance incentives, as the Cardinals did with Adam Wainwright. As the two are of comparable age and have been franchise icons for 15 years together, the comparison seems to have merit.
St. Louis’ longtime ace did not publicly share any feelings of being disrespected when dropping from an annual salary of $19.5 million to a $2 million base plus appearance incentives (all of which he reached), which made his total take last season $10 million.
Granted, Wainwright was coming off a number of years of uneven contributions due to injury, while Molina has been much steadier over time. As such, the pitcher having to assume more of the risk is understandable. And he delivered.
After Wainwright posted a solid 2019, the Cardinals rewarded him with a higher base salary for 2020 of $5 million, with another $5 million in incentives. However the total remains the same $10 million maximum for his age 38-39 season.
Having no knowledge yet of how Molina will perform this season, if I had to start on his next contract now, Wainwright’s 2020 deal would seem like a great place to focus discussion.
For those who might suggest that Molina is more valuable than Wainwright, I refer you to WAR, Wins Above Replacement. It is one of the better tools available to compare the total contribution of pitchers and position players, including defense.
In 2019, Wainwright earned 1.9 bWAR (per Baseball Reference), versus 1.3 for Molina. If you prefer Fangraphs instead, their WAR formula has Wainwright as the even more productive player of the two, at 2.2 fWAR to 1.2 for Molina.
See where I am coming from?
P.S. For those who think Molina deserves to be paid “whatever it takes,” my response is that the Cardinals’ player payroll budget is finite. Overpaying for veterans with declining performance is a major reason the team has been unable to improve externally as much as many fans would like. You cannot have it both ways…
Just as I said in November, there is no hurry. Molina is under contract for 2020. Unless the Cardinals want to pay him at least $16 million next season, he will need to reach free agency no matter what.
It is important to understand that the CBA terms make it clear that a new contract (not an extension) cannot be finalized until winter free agency begins. Given the most recent news that the World Series may run into December, so will the 2020-2021 free agent period be delayed until the snow is likely flying again in the Midwest.
Still, that does not mean that the two sides cannot and will not put their heads together before then, but in my assessment, in the interim, Molina should be playing in 2020 to maximize his appeal for 2021 – just like any other impending free agent. Further, he should be open to terms in his next contract that reflect where he is on his career arc.
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