Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cards could be insane if they miss out on Molina

BY David Villavicencio

Albert Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Hopefully Bill DeWitt, John Mozeliak and St. Louis Cardinals have heard this quote before or they might be destined for a padded room in their future. 

It is no secret by now that the Cardinals botched their negotiations with prized free agent and superstar Albert Pujols. They low-balled him far too long and ultimately made him feel disrespected.

By the time they came up with an offer that Pujols would have deemed acceptable, the star had set his sights elsewhere and decided to join the Angels. 

Reports later surfaced that Pujols was put off by how the Cardinals treated him in their negotiations prior to Spring Training last year. He felt disrespected and had all but decided to go elsewhere when his contract expired at the end of the 2011 season.

Sure, Pujols is older and the contract he signed with the Angels will ultimately have more bad years than good ones. It was tough to hand someone such a franchise-restricting contract, even if he is the greatest player that franchise has had in decades and the best player in baseball at the moment. 

The Cardinals may have ultimately lucked out by not re-signing Pujols but it was clear the way they handled themselves in the negotiations played a huge factor in losing their biggest star.

Fast forward to present day and you will find the Cardinals in the midst of another negotiation with a soon-to-be free agent. 

Yadier Molina is set to hit the open market at the end of the season and the four-time All-Star catcher is sure to have plenty of potential suitors should he become available to the other 29 big league teams.

Who wouldn't be interested in a player that is regarded as the best defensive catcher in the game. Molina completely shuts down the opponent's running game with his cat-like reflexes and rocket arm. A four-time Gold Glove recipient, Molina is also known to call an excellent game and respected by his teammates as a leader in the clubhouse.

But those are just his defensive accolades. Molina can hit too.

The 29-year-old has come a long way offensively. When he first came up, Molina was an offensive liability. But hard work and development have turned him into one of the better hitting catchers in baseball. He has hit over .300 twice and over .290 in three of the past four seasons. 
Molina homers to win 2006 NLCS

Molina has shown steady improvement offensively and is coming off his best season at the plate. In 2011, Molina hit .305 with 32 doubles, 14 home runs and 65 runs-batted-in. All four of those numbers are career-highs.

Yadi is also a "clutch" hitter. I hate to use that term but Molina does seem to rise to the occasion. He is a career .309 hitter in the postseason and played a key role in both the 2006 and 2011 postseasons that ended in Cardinals championships. 

Clearly, Molina has a lot going for him as a potential free agent and that also gives him a lot of leverage in negotiations. He has already said he would not give the Cardinals a hometown discount and really has no need to do so. 

He will be likely be the best free agent catcher available in free agency unless the Braves shock the world and decide to decline Brian McCann's option for the 2013 season. Other notable free agent backstops include Ryan Doumit, Russell Martin, Miguel Montero, Mike Napoli, A.J. Pierzynski and Yorvit Torrealba. Joining McCann in the group with pending options are Rod Barajas, Henry Blanco, Chris Iannetta, Miguel Olivo and Carlos Ruiz.

That is a lot of catching options that could be available at the end of the year. The Cardinals might look at that list and say, "We will be alright with any of those guys." But think logically and the list doesn't look as appealing to them.

Atlanta is probably going to pick up McCann's $12 million option or extend him. 

The Diamondbacks will surely want to bring back Montero. He would be 29 on Opening Day 2013 and can really hit. That seems like a no-brainer. 

The Rangers will likely want to bring Napoli back after the huge year he had in 2011. If he can repeat his offensive success, he will be very expensive in free agency. However, the likelihood of that is slim as Napoli never hit better than .273 before posting a .320 average last season. Even if he does hit again, he does not compare to Molina defensively and would cost as much, if not more, than Molina.

The rest of the group is not very exciting. 

Barajas, Blanco, Olivo, Pierzynski, Ruiz and Torrealba will all be 34 or older on Opening Day 2013. For most of those guys, their best days are clearly behind them.

Doumit cannot defend the catcher position full-time and has had a slew of injuries and inconsistent performance. 

Iannetta has never lived up to his promise and might be destined for reserve duty if he doesn't pick it up offensively soon.

Martin, like Molina, will be 30 on Opening Day 2013. He is a clear downgrade from Yadi, both offensively and defensively, and would not be the greatest consolation prize should the Redbirds end up with him as Molina's replacement. Also, it seems unlikely that he will hit free agency as he is in discussions with the Yankees about a three-year extension.

What our very brief look at the other free agent catchers proves is that the Cardinals will likely end up with a major downgrade behind the plate if they cannot come to terms with Molina. 

Add to that the fact that they do not have any everyday catchers close to the big leagues (no disrespect to Tony Cruz, Bryan Anderson and Koyie Hill) and you find that St. Louis really needs to get a deal with Molina done.

But you might be asking yourselves about other potential free agents the Cardinals will need to replace.

Beyond Molina, the Cardinals have just four players set to be come free agents at the end of the year.

Lance Berkman will be a free agent at the end of the year but he may be easily replaced. The Cards already have Allen Craig in the fold. Prospect Matt Adams is expected to be ready by 2013. Mark Hamilton, who has had success in the minors but has not hit much in two big league callups is also waiting for a chance. 

The Cardinals also have a pair of talented third baseman in the minors in Zack Cox and Matt Carpenter. If either proves ready for the big leagues, the Cards could consider shifting David Freese across the diamond and fill the void that way. 

Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook are both set to become free agents at the end of the year and that might be addition by subtraction. While Lohse and Westbrook are serviceable, bottom of the rotation arms, they will combine to make over $20 million in 2012. That is a lot of money to pay for your fourth and fifth starters. 

Combine that with the likelihood that top prospect Shelby Miller will be more than ready for the big leagues by 2013 and you have already replaced one starter with someone who many expect to be much better and still have about $19.5 million unspent.

Add in Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, Jordan Swagerty and Brandon Dickson and you have plenty of good, young talent to fill the other spot and still have $19 million to spend on Molina and the rest of your roster.

The final free agent in J.C. Romero and he is highly replaceable. It seems like every year, lefty specialists are wearing a different uniform so finding a new one would not be difficult. Internal options are available as well with prospect John Gast ready and waiting for an opportunity. Gast could also factor in as a starter if the Cardinals wanted to use him that way.

So it seems obvious that the Cardinals will have money at their disposal to re-sign Molina. It also seems like they will be able to upgrade internally to replace their departing free agents. 

Will Molina be wearing a different cap a year from now too?
Now it's just a matter of how they choose to handle the negotiations with Molina. Will they toy with these negotiations like they did with Pujols or be aggressive and try to get a deal done? Could a low-ball offer ultimately push Molina away from St. Louis like it did with Albert? 

No one knows for sure but it is clear that they had one type of outcome already with their dillydallying negotiations. Do they think things will end differently this time?

I guess it's a matter of sanity.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article. I was not aware of how Pujols felt in his negotiations with Cards.