By Kevin Reynolds
In St. Louis, fans celebrate the life and career of Stan Musial, the most prolific Cardinal of all time. With 3,630 hits, a .331 batting average, and 725 doubles – the third-most doubles in baseball history – enshrinement in the Hall of Fame was assured. Even by modern standards, his 124.7 offensive WAR – seventh all time, only bested by the likes of Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and the legendary Babe Ruth – “The Man” would be a first ballot no-brainer.
But among all those amazing statistics, one always stood out as the most Musial-like of all – his 1,815 hits at home and 1,815 hits on the road. Consistency and dependability, the hallmarks of St. Louis’ number one citizen.
Today, that number’s notoriety is threatened by another. Twenty-two. The number of years Musial spent in Major League Baseball. It’s also the number of years he spent as a St. Louis Cardinal.
The concept of a player spending his entire career with one organization has become antiquated, almost vintage. Free agent contracts and blockbuster trades send players from team to team, turning unproven minor league prospects into commodities and currency. But in Cardinal Nation, the lifelong ballplayer is a beloved treasure. It’s also a rare bird.
And then there was Pujols.
The Pujols Defection
Albert was the next Stan Musial, the once-in-a-generation hitter that would achieve the rare feat of playing his entire career for the same team. He was supposed to be an icon, a legend immortalized in bronze outside the gates of Busch Stadium. Instead, he became the poster boy for a modern baseball economic reality.
Money equals respect, and respect matters.
When Albert signed with the Angels, the local reaction should have been predictable. Fans accustomed to criticizing principal owner Bill DeWitt, Jr. for refusing to open De-Wallet and pay for marquis players were expected to, metaphorically, riot. Instead, they rallied, surrounding the hometown team and General Manager John Mozeliak with stubborn solidarity.
The Cardinals had offered an outlandish contract, much more than they should have in retrospect, and Albert turned them down.
He was called greedy, selfish, prideful, and any other non-midwestern trait St. Louisans could dredge up from years of Show-Me-State roots. The relieved satisfaction on the face of Mozeliak as he met with reporters that subsequent Winter Warm-Up was clear. Mozeliak had bet on the faithfulness and intelligence of the Cardinals fanbase, and he was rewarded handsomely.
Now, it’s time to return the favor. The Cardinals owe the fans of St. Louis a career-ending contract extension with Yadier Molina.
A Tough Road
Closing the deal on a career-ending contract extension is easier said than done.
Cardinal fans remember the bullpen achievements of one-time closers Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter, but it’s fellow closer Jason Isringhausen that owns the franchise saves record with 217, a full 57 more than Smith’s 160 and 90 more than Sutter’s 127.
It wasn’t enough to save Izzy’s job, though. After a string of blown saves and visceral fan unrest, St. Louis parted ways with their flagship relief pitcher just seven saves shy of the hurler’s career goal of 300. He later reached the mark as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays before retiring from baseball four years later. But his exit was a footnote, not the regal celebration St. Louis had hoped for.
He wasn’t the only franchise player to end his career with more fizzle than confetti.
Jim Edmonds, a member of the inaugural class of the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame, became the second member of the vaunted MV3 from that wall-banging 2004 squad to leave town after Scott Rolen’s public feud with Tony LaRussa forced a bitter trade.
Both Edmonds and Rolen drew praise as the best defensive players at their respective positions in a generation, and their bats earned them top-five MVP finishes. But in the end, both played their final games far from the organization they were known for.
Years before the Pujols departure, a disturbing trend was forming.
Since the retirement of Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, the Cardinals have struggled to find a way for their promotion-worthy players to leave the game wearing the birds on the bat. Only Chris Carpenter finished a Redbird, and even that by accident, a victim of reoccurring shoulder injuries that gave the St. Louis front office a way out of a difficult situation.
Carpenter’s contract was coming due, and the organization was feeling pressure to put together a final extension for an injury-riddled veteran. Fate intervened.
The same outcome does not appear likely in Molina’s case.
Different But the Same
Even among those franchise-defining names, Yadier Molina is unique. While Isringhausen, Edmonds, Rolen, and Carpenter are closely tied to Cardinals history, all of them started their careers elsewhere. That list includes Ozzie Smith, the former Padre traded to St. Louis in 1981. Of the players discussed above, only Pujols emerged from the St. Louis farm system before spending the first eleven years of his career as a Cardinal.
By comparison, Yadi has them all beat.
The 34-year old catcher is entering his fourteenth year as a Major League Baseball player, all with the team that drafted him. For his part, Molina never gave St. Louis a reason to regret their commitment.
Eight gold gloves, seven All-Star selections, four World Series appearances, two World Series Championships, and two top-five National League Most Valuable Player finishes. And now, Yadier Molina stands at the threshold of the twilight of his career.
You wouldn’t know it by his offense.
In 2016, Molina posted the third-best batting average (.307) and on-base percentage (.360) of his career, numbers that fit nicely with the back-stop’s fourth-best slugging percentage (.427). And he did it while leading all of baseball in innings caught by a catcher (1,218.1).
|162 Game Avg.||162||619||562||54||160||31||1||11||71||5||3||43||59||.285||.338||.400||.738||98|
That season, Yadi also eclipsed his own previous career highs in innings, games played (146), and games started (142) behind the plate. He was the spoon that stirred the pot, the engine that made the St. Louis Cardinals go.
But defensively, baseball’s best catcher in a generation dipped noticeably.
Known for his intimidating presence behind the plate, Molina often suppressed the running game of opposing teams to near non-existence. Last season, however, he allowed a whopping 67 stolen bases, more than twice his year-to-year average of 31 since assuming the starting job in 2005 and just nine fewer than the league high of 76 allowed by San Diego’s Derek Norris.
Mike Matheny routinely blames the pitching staff’s inability to hold runners close, a factor that has certainly played a role in the past, but Molina’s 34-year old knees are not benign. In fact, in an effort to better shoulder his traditional innings load, Yadi engaged in rigorous, self-induced changes to his offseason conditioning program. Maybe an unfamiliar body type impacted his play. Maybe he’s just getting older.
Either one is not likely to make the Cardinals’ front office any more comfortable with a new contract extension. This is the uncertain territory briefly occupied by John Mozeliak and the Chris Carpenter camp. How do you structure a contract for a franchise player possibly impacted by physical struggles at the end of his career?
And then there’s Yadi’s view of himself. Now, the Cardinals are in Jim Edmonds territory. Does a once MVP-caliber player believe he will be playing at the same level in two or three years?
In Edmonds’ case, he saw the writing on the wall and asked to go to a team that allowed him to play everyday. That writing included names like Rick Ankiel, Colby Rasmus, and Jon Jay, all players who filled Edmonds’ position in the outfield.
In Yadi’s case, that name is Carson Kelly.
Years ago, when current manager Mike Matheny was the Cardinals’ catcher on the field, the grizzled leader came home to his wife and said, “I just met the kid whose going to take my job some day.” He was talking about Yadier Molina.
And so began the process of mentoring and developing Molina for the eventual handoff of the starting job behind the plate. That handoff happened in 2004 when the two shared catching duties, even in the World Series. A season later, Matheny was in San Francisco and Yadi was the man.
The Cardinals have always known a similar scenario would be ideal for Yadi’s replacement, but until recently, that replacement was unknown.
Unimpressed with the current in-house candidates at the position, St. Louis eventually identified a young third-baseman named Carson Kelly for a position change. Kelly impressed, even winning a minor league gold glove award as a catcher soon after. And that’s when the clock started.
Molina continues to defy father time by catching more and more innings season to season. Matheny himself finally dismissed the notion that the Cardinals would seek to reduce Yadi’s time behind the plate, a strategy the organization had tried to employ in response to consecutive seasons with a Molina hampered by late and post-season injuries. The club decided they would rather do without Molina for a few games in June and July than for a series in October.
Turns out, they can have him for both. The question now is, can they have both Molina and his soon-to-be protege Carson Kelly in the same Major League dugout?
And, more immediately, is Yadi willing to sign a new contract extension to remain a Cardinal if it means reduced playing time when that time comes?
The Contract the Fans Deserve
The Cardinals are a cash-rich team. Flush with a new lucrative TV contract and a consistently loyal fanbase passing through the gates, St. Louis has the money to carry Molina until he voluntarily takes off his shin guards. They also have an obligation to do so.
When Albert Pujols signed with the Angels, the majority of fans understood. It was not the organization’s fault – not really – and it only makes sense to maintain some payroll flexibility instead of weighing yourself down with an albatross deal. In fact, one reason the Cardinals routinely floated for allowing Pujols to walk was the fact that it allowed them to retain both Molina and Adam Wainwright.
And it was Yadier Molina the frachise tagged as the “irreplaceable player” when they negotiated his current five-year deal.
Now, it’s time for the organization to repay the fans for their loyalty after the Pujols fiasco and make good on their “irreplaceable player” label.
It’s also time for Molina to be the player Pujols claimed to be, the player that refuses to be lured away from a fan base and a city that loves him. Yadi must understand that a time is coming when Kelly will be the man. It may be two years from now, or it may be three or four years from now, but his time is coming.
In many ways, it is Molina’s own success with the Cardinals – and Matheny’s and Tom Pagnozzi‘s before him – that will ultimately lead to Carson Kelly’s ascendance. They all taught St. Louis how important a top-tier catcher is to a winning club. It would be irresponsible of that same team to allow the heir-apparent to their position to play for another club just to coddle any player for another season or two in the sun.
Maybe the Cardinals pay Molina a ridiculous sum of money for a year or two while he splits time. Or maybe Mike Matheny reminds Yadi of that year he split time with the future of the franchise.
Whatever the case, it is definitely time for the Cardinals to repay the fan base for their unexpected support during the Pujols departure and finally give them the player they have been waiting for since the days of Musial and Bob Gibson.
A Hall of Fame, franchise icon that calls himself definitively and without reservation a St. Louis Cardinal. It’s time for the Cardinals to make Yadier Molina a lifer and sign him to one more career -ending contract extension.
The fans have waited for it. They have begged for it. They deserve it.
Kevin Reynolds has covered the Cardinals for About.com, Yahoo! Sports, and various other entities. He’s been writing and podcasting about the Cardinals since 2004 at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff. Follow him and chat baseball on Twitter (@deckacards), and check him out on Facebook.