photo: Yadier Molina (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
News item: Veteran St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is open to playing in 2021 and perhaps 2022, his ages 38-39 and 39-40 seasons.
The player’s agent, Melvin Roman, reportedly delivered the news to Cardinals executives at the General Managers Meetings in Phoenix this week. The two sides plan to reconvene in the spring to discuss the matter further.
Molina, who currently has one year remaining on his three-year, $60 million contract signed in April 2017, had previously been quoted as saying that 2020 would be his final season as a player.
With his $20 million annual salary, Molina has been the highest-paid Cardinal.
Others have analyzed the situation from the stats and late-career perspective, suggesting what a market-price contract might look like. Yet others have speculated on what a Molina extension might mean for the future of current top catching prospect Andrew Knizner, who may be MLB-ready now.
Those are valid angles to consider, but my issue is even more basic. In fact, I consider it a show-stopper. Any extension is going to be very, very expensive for the Cardinals – and therefore, should not be offered. (Note that I said “extension”, not “new contract”. The significant difference will be explained following.)
Specifically, the lower boundary of any MLB player’s annual salary for a contract extension is stipulated in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the current edition of which runs through 2021.
This basic document governing team and player behavior states the following in Article VI, Section B(1) – Maximum Salary Cut Rate.
“A Club may not tender, sign or renew a Player under reserve to the Club pursuant to Article XX(A) of this Agreement and paragraph 10(a) of the Uniform Player’s Contract to a Uniform Player’s Contract that provides a salary for (a) Major League service that constitutes a reduction in excess of 20% of his salary for Major League service in the previous season or in excess of 30% of his salary for Major League service two seasons prior to the first season covered by the new contract;”
The math that follows is easy. Molina’s current contract calls for a $20 million annual salary in 2020. Therefore, any extension must guarantee him at least $16 million in 2021.
A two-year extension could total no less than $28.8 million. Year 2 could be no lower than 80% of $16 MM, with $16 MM plus $12.8 MM equaling $28.8 MM.
A recent reminder
As some may recall, another Cardinal legend nearing his career end, Adam Wainwright, was in a comparable situation following the 2018 season. The right-hander had just concluded a five-year, $97.5 million contract that paid him $19.5 million in 2018 – and he wanted to return to St. Louis for 2019.
That he was coming off four sub-par years during which he returned the Cardinals just 2.2 bWAR in total, meant that Wainwright was no longer viable to the Cardinals at the CBA-dictated minimum extension salary of $15.6 million (20 percent reduction from $19.5 MM).
The way this was handled is that the two sides had to wait until Wainwright became a free agent. At that point, the Maximum Salary Cut Rate as dictated in the CBA no longer applied. Wainwright was not under Cardinals control, free to sign anywhere at any salary.
He immediately came to terms to return to St. Louis for 2019 on a base salary of just $2 million, with $8 million of games-started incentives, which he achieved. Just this week, the right-hander settled with the team on another one-year deal, with a $5 million base, plus $5 million in incentives. Based on his 2019 rebound (1.9 bWAR), the 2020 contract terms seem fair for both sides.
Back to Molina
While Molina is a surefire future Cardinals Hall of Famer and has a strong case for Cooperstown as well, guaranteeing him a base of $16 million per year as he approaches 40 years of age presents a huge risk.
The franchise already is limited in moves they can make this off-season, in part due to several long-term deals given to players who are underperforming in comparison to their salaries.
As good as Molina has been, committing to an extension at any time before he reaches free agency would simply be an unwise financial move by the Cardinals.
I am not suggesting that Molina be disrespected in any way. However, the team is currently prohibited by the CBA from offering the catcher a subsequent contract that better reflects the reality of the aging curve facing every player – even the great Molina. Father Time always wins.
Instead, as did Wainwright, the player should be open to accepting an incentive-based deal that protects the team, yet still gives the player the opportunity to cash in – if he remains healthy and productive.
This cannot occur until at least November of 2020. So, while it is great that Roman and the Cardinals front office plan to meet in the spring, an extension should not be struck at that time. See how the 2020 season goes and pick up the talks in earnest next fall.
Bottom line: Say all the right things in the interim, but wait 12 months to put pen to paper.
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