At this time last year, Yadier Molina was recovering from a torn left thumb ligament that ultimately required two surgeries. The Cardinals figured their eight-time Gold Glove winner wouldn't play his customary number of games in 2016.
They were right.
He played more.
Molina's 147 games, 1,218 1/3 innings caught and 581 plate appearances all established new career highs during a year in which he turned 34. So how will Molina prepare for 2017, the final guaranteed season on his contract with the Cardinals?
By playing more baseball, of course.
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Molina has formally committed to play for his native Puerto Rico at the upcoming World Baseball Classic, his agent, Melvin Roman, told MLB.com Monday.
"It's amazing: His second half was one of his best ever," Roman said in a telephone interview, referring to Molina's .926 OPS in 65 games after the All-Star break. "The last couple years, he had slowed down offensively toward the end of the season. He'd been on a different training program and was trying to keep his weight down. But he realized he needs to be in that 220 to 225 range and not lose too much weight.
"He really understands his body now. And after not winning a championship or the Gold Glove this year -- by a close score, and I know he's happy for [Buster] Posey -- I think his desire is bigger than ever, to regain his status as the best catcher in the game."
Molina is set to earn $14 million next year, followed by a $15 million mutual option for 2018. It's not surprising, then, that the sides aren't close to a new agreement -- or even discussing one in detail.
Roman said he plans to address Molina's contractual status with general manager John Mozeliak before Opening Day in 2017. The last time Molina entered the final guaranteed year of a contract (2012), the Cardinals signed him to an extension early in Spring Training.
"It's quiet for now," Roman said. "We'll address that conversation when the time calls for it. It will be Yadi's desire to stay there. We get along very well [with the Cardinals' front office]. We've known each other for a long time. We've been dealing with the organization since Yadi was in high school. We're very proactive, and we'll be clear and honest about what we want to accomplish.
"It's going to be interesting. We know this is a business. They know this is a business. Yadi wants to concentrate on the 2017 season, win another championship, and play good baseball. There's no question he wants to stay there and finish his career in St. Louis. It's going to be up to ownership and the club to make that decision if they really want to keep him there."
Roman said Molina learned from the experiences of his close friend Albert Pujols, who left St. Louis as a free agent almost exactly five years ago. In 2011, Pujols declined to hold contract talks with the Cardinals between the start of Spring Training and end of the World Series. Once Pujols hit the open market and other teams expressed interest, talks with St. Louis struggled to gain traction.
"That's why we're going to try to address the situation sooner rather than later -- before it's too late," Roman said. "We're not saying, 'If it doesn't happen in this amount of time, we're going to walk away and sign elsewhere.' We're going to do everything in our power to accomplish the goal of staying in St. Louis."
For now, Molina will prepare to help lead a Puerto Rican team expected to include young stars Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Javier Báez. Molina's legendary acumen behind the plate was especially evident in the 2013 WBC, when he guided a largely unproven Puerto Rican pitching staff into the championship game before losing to the Dominican Republic.
Stanton could return: Orioles outfielder Adam Jones is slated to play in Team USA's outfield for the second straight WBC, and Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton remains under consideration to do the same.
While nothing has been finalized, sources say discussions are ongoing between USA Baseball officials and Stanton's representatives concerning a starting role. Stanton appeared in five of Team USA's six games during the 2013 tournament, posting a .616 OPS in 17 at-bats.
Tournament organizers are mindful of the WBC's marketing reach, and the presence of a popular Marlins star on the U.S. roster would boost the event's profile in South Florida; Team USA's first-round pool is scheduled for Marlins Park, beginning with a March 10 opener against Colombia.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post was the first to report Stanton's possible inclusion on Team USA's preliminary roster.
Israel adding to roster? Israel is set to make its first WBC appearance in March, after going 3-0 during a September qualifying tournament that -- because of scheduling -- did not include current Major League players.
There are no such limitations for the 16-team final tournament in March, and the Israeli baseball federation is in contact with U.S.-born players who meet the eligibility criteria -- most commonly, by having at least one Jewish grandparent.
In fact, Israeli baseball officials have arranged for several MLB players to travel to Israel in January, in hopes that some (or all) will join the team for first-round play in Seoul, South Korea. The group will include Mets infielder/outfielder Ty Kelly and free-agent outfielder Sam Fuld, who missed 2016 due to rotator cuff surgery; neither Kelly nor Fuld played in the qualifying tournament.