Yadier Molina and Walker Cooper

With some St. Louis Cardinals fans still steaming over the circumstances surrounding the painful departure of Albert Pujols, the focus of their concern has moved to next year’s major impending free agent, catcher Yadier Molina.

Articles are popping up, in which the merits of trading away the catcher before he “does a Pujols” to the Gateway City are being weighed. Speculation about what was behind his decision to skip the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up for the second consecutive year continues.

In terms of value, Molina seems to be a player at the peak of his game. He is coming off his best offensive year in addition to already being the game’s best defensive backstop. As he moves into his age 29-30 season, the time to act would seem to be now. But, what should the act be?

Re-signing Molina would please many, but is that likely? Is it the best business decision for the franchise? Is a trade any more feasible? Would any other club be willing to acquire the four-time Gold Glover without first securing a commitment to an extension?

Waiting until mid-season to trade Molina no longer seems an attractive option. The new collective bargaining agreement specifies that a club acquiring an impending free agent during his final season will not receive draft pick compensation if the player signs elsewhere.

More importantly, knowing what he could potentially make in the open market next fall, at this time why would Molina commit long-term to a new team, let alone the Cardinals?

Just like Pujols and Matt Holliday before him, Molina has earned the right to gauge his worth across the game. He gave the Cardinals two of his potential free agent years when signing his last contract, but no longer has that motivation. With financial security and being at his optimal age, this is his time.

I would not fault Molina one bit for taking that path. Free agency is the model defined by the game.

Still, just as in the case of Pujols, I suspect the Cardinals will not trade Molina in the interim. He is a very popular player and a crucial one, called “our captain on the field” by Skip Schumaker this past weekend. Via trade, Molina would not fetch a replacement of the same level of skill. There would be quantity and potential quality, but likely no single player currently as good as him.

Nor is there an heir apparent in the minor league system ready to step in. I think the Cardinals will be focused on keeping the best possible team together in hopes of a repeat title in 2012. That would seem to include Molina wearing the Birds on the Bat.

Though I did not deeply consider the Pujols situation in this context earlier on, I do now. With the benefit of hindsight, winning the 2011 World Championship made the gamble of keeping Pujols until the end pay off, in my opinion.

That was a very long opening for the real motivation I had for writing this post.

This winter, I have been reading/re-reading various Stan Musial-related books, having started with the recent George Vescey-authored, “Stan Musial: An American Life.”

Next up will be The Man’s own biography, written with/by legendary sportswriter Bob Broeg back in 1964, “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story.”

In between is my current subject, James Giglio’s 2001 book, “Musial: From Stash to Stan the Man.”

In the latter, just last night, I read a passage that, while from another era, reminded me of what the loss of a true game-changing catcher could mean to the franchise.

On page 124, as he discussed the post-World War II make up of the Cardinals, Giglio wrote this.

“The greatest Cardinal loss remained Walker Cooper, however, who went to the New York Giants in January 1946 for $175,000. The right-handed Cooper, the best catcher in the National League, had excellent seasons with the Giants and the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1940’s. Both Musial and (Enos) Slaughter contended than the loss of Cooper cost the Redbirds several pennants, for neither (Joe) Garagiola, Ken O’Dea or Del Rice came close to equaling Cooper’s offensive production or matching his leadership on the field. Cooper’s departure cost the Cardinals not only a long-ball threat but also balance at the plate, enabling opponents to challenge Musial’s and Slaughter’s left-handed power with southpaw pitching.

“(Owner Sam) Breadon used Cooper’s dislike of (new manager Eddie) Dyer, who managed him in the minors, as a pretext for selling him despite Dyer’s plea that he would work things out. Money remained the main motive; Breadon, tired of Cooper’s constant haggling over salary, also wanted to ensure that he came out financially ahead in 1946 in the face of higher salaries.”

The Cardinals did win the Series in 1946, but clearly hurt themselves in the long haul by disposing of Cooper. Though there were certainly other contributing factors, it would be the club’s last pennant for 18 long years, including Musial’s final 17 seasons.

Cooper was sent away three days before his 30th birthday, the same age as Molina will be this coming winter. Just like Molina, he played in three World Series with St. Louis, with his club winning twice. At the time, Cooper was a three-time NL All-Star, same as Molina today. After leaving St. Louis, Cooper went on to play another dozen years, including his final two back with the Cardinals as a reserve in 1956 and 1957. He added five more All-Star selections for a career total of eight.

Yes, this is a different time; yet the issue, then and now, is money. There is no way of knowing if the Cardinals will offer enough of it to Molina to satisfy him. Without Pujols, they may have the budget, but do they want to pay? If not, Molina will leave, perhaps of his own volition. All things considered, is trying for another title in 2012 better than the alternative?

At this point, I can only wonder how the books of the future will treat this time in Cardinals history and in Yadier Molina’s career.

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