Yadier Molina’s first at-bat of his career was on June 3, 2004. He was batting seventh, between Hector Luna and So Taguchi, for the best Cardinals team of my lifetime, and in that first at-bat, he popped out to the second baseman against Pittsburgh left-hander Oliver Perez, one of three
Yadier Molina’s first at-bat of his career was on June 3, 2004. He was batting seventh, between Hector Luna and So Taguchi, for the best Cardinals team of my lifetime, and in that first at-bat, he popped out to the second baseman against Pittsburgh left-hander Oliver Perez, one of three players in that game who is still an active Major Leaguer. (Albert Pujols is the other.) He was wearing No. 41 and backing up Mike Matheny, the current manager of the Kansas City Royals.
Since then, he has changed his number -- no one else will ever wear No. 4 in St. Louis again, other than the tens of thousands of fans in the ballpark -- made nine All-Star teams, won nine Gold Gloves, finished in the top five of MVP voting twice and won two World Series. (He has also played in 101 postseason games, the sixth-most ever.) And he has become the emotional and spiritual leader of the entire Cardinals franchise, even more beloved and vital to the organization than Pujols ever was, before he left after the 2011 season. Yadi is the Cardinals.
And it is very possible he might leave. Molina has hit the free-agent market for the first time in his career, and he reportedly has several suitors, including the Yankees and the Mets. It’s difficult to imagine Molina would ever wear a uniform other than the Birds on the Bat, but it could very well happen.
Is Yadi going to leave? Is he going to stay? Here are three reasons for the former, and three for the latter.
WHY YADI MIGHT LEAVE
1. The Cardinals appear to be cutting payroll.
The huge warning flare shot up when the Cardinals declined to pick up the $12 million option on the final year of the contract of their Gold Glove-winning leadoff man, Kolten Wong. The Cardinals are perhaps as reliant on having fans in the stands as any in baseball, and they’re clearly operating accordingly; this is not a year you should expect the team to be splurging on anyone. Molina signed a three-year, $60 million deal back in 2018, and while he probably shouldn’t expect to make that much this time, he certainly wants to be paid what he believes he’s worth. If the Cardinals just turned down the opportunity to pay Wong, the team’s second-best player in 2020 by WAR (per Baseball Reference), why would they pay that much for a 38-year-old catcher?
2. The Cardinals have a young catcher ready to go.
The Cardinals traded away Carson Kelly, who had been stuck behind Molina his entire career, and his future looks promising, even if his 2020 didn’t match his promising 2019 campaign. They don’t want the same thing to happen to Andrew Knizner, a former Top 100 prospect who will turn 26 in February but still hasn’t played more than 18 games in a season. Knizner has impressed the Cardinals with his evolution behind the plate and his obviously live bat. If Molina wants a two-year deal, and he reportedly does, you’re asking Knizner to sit until he’s 28. When Molina was 28, he’d already won two World Series.
3. Molina just isn’t the player he used to be, and the Cardinals need more from the position.
Molina was key for the Cardinals in 2020, with key hits in key situations, and he was even bigger in the 2019 postseason; there’s no way the Cardinals would have beaten the Braves in that NLDS without him. But the numbers do not lie. Molina’s on-base percentage has fallen through the floor -- at .306 in 2020, it was the lowest since he was the slap-hitter he was the first few years of his career -- and he has essentially stopped walking all together. (He had six last year.) According to OPS+, he has only been an average offensive player twice since 2014, most recently in 2018, and even that year he was barely above average (103). And, sad to say, but the defense has slipped as well; his passed ball rate was the highest of his career last year, and while his caught-stealing percentage was up in 2020, basestealers ran on him at a higher rate than they have in a decade, a sign that maybe they’re not as scared of him as they used to be. Molina is an incredible catcher for someone who is 38 years old. He is still, however, 38 years old.
WHY YADI WILL STAY
1. The team would lose much of its heart without him.
Paul Goldschmidt was the best position player in St. Louis in 2020, and Jack Flaherty has the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster. But Goldschmidt has only been there two years, and Flaherty actually took a small step back last year. When Pujols left, Molina took the mantle of team leader and never relinquished it; he is the face and heart and soul of the team. As we saw in the Padres series, the Cardinals are not a team of big personalities, and there aren’t a lot of obvious standouts for fans to get behind. Losing Yadier Molina would leave them adrift. Who are the Cardinals without Yadier Molina?
2. Giving Knizner the job full-time is a risk.
Knizner has earned his shot, but it’s not like he’s torn the cover off the ball in the Major Leagues (.642 OPS in 75 career plate appearances). And Molina clearly has the trust of that pitching staff. The Cardinals are already behind the eight-ball a bit by losing Wong. Are we sure the Cardinals are better starting Knizner rather than Molina? Because the Cardinals better be sure.
3. Can they really stomach Molina finishing his career in another uniform?
Molina, along with his battery-mate Adam Wainwright, who’s also a free agent this year, is that rare superstar who has spent his entire career with one team. Is that something the Cardinals really want to lose in the last couple of years of his career? Do you really want Molina to say goodbye wearing a Mets uniform? (They’ve been booing him in Flushing since the 2006 NLCS.) The Cardinals might win in 2021, and they might not, and in the long run of history, it will only be so memorable. But if Molina finishes his career somewhere else, it will always feel wrong and never be forgotten. The Cardinals have a chance to have a lifetime one-team superstar, which almost never happens. It’s hard to imagine them, having made it this far, not sticking the landing.