I recently put together a list of five backup catchers that the White Sox could pursue this winter, and on that list was Cardinals’ catcher, Yadier Molina. There are a few concerns there when it comes to the actual possibility of that, but it’s intriguing enough to dive a little bit deeper into the possibility of the future Hall of Famer coming to town.
The TLR Connection
Yadier Molina has spent his entire 17-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals, so naturally, it’s tough to imagine him playing in another uniform, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the potential departure from the Red Birds.
That being said, I’d have to believe that if he was going to anywhere else — which is becoming a real possibility in that he doesn’t have a contract with the Cardinals for the 2021 season — the idea of playing for Tony La Russa on a team that has a chance to compete for a World Series would be a situation he’d give real consideration to.
Molina played for Tony La Russa for the first eight years of his career, and the two won a pair of World Series Championships together in St. Louis.
While signing a deal with the Cardinals, and eventually retiring there, might be his ideal situation it would be naive to completely rule out the idea of reuniting with La Russa and playing an instrumental role in winning his third World Series Championship before he calls it a career.
I doubt that Molina is going to take a discount for anyone at this point in his career, hence he and the Cardinals not having a contract agreement in place as we approach the holiday season. Which is fine, because I don’t think he should. He’s earned his keep for nearly two decades, and as I’ll try to illustrate in the rest of this story, he’ll play a vital role(s) with the White Sox if that’s the end result.
Rather than insulting Molina right off the bat by asking him to leave St. Louis, at a discounted rate, Tony La Russa should make it clear to Rick Hahn, Kenny Williams, and Jerry Reinsdorf, that Molina is worth the few extra bucks that they might not otherwise invest into that spot.
Anything left in the tank?
With it being established that Molina won’t be cheap, there’s the question of what kind of value can the White Sox expect to extract from the veteran backstop, or more bluntly put — does he have anything left in the tank?
By the standards by which FanGraphs defines WAR, Molina has not been an “All-Star” caliber (4-5 fWAR) player since the 2013 season, but Molina has posted an fWAR somewhere in between 2-4 for each of those seasons since 2013 when he amassed a whopping 7.8 fWAR.
What does that mean? It means that Molina has been good, not great, for much of the last decade (by WAR standards). But, even in the last seven seasons that have been considered simply, “good,” Molina has slashed .283/.328/.415 with 83 home runs, 370 RBI, and a 102 wRC+.
Molina saw a decline in the abbreviated 2020, slashing just .262/.303/.359 with a wRC+ of just 82, but we’re talking about a backup catcher who might spend some time at designated hitter moving forward.
But Molina’s value in Chicago would go far beyond fWAR and slash lines, just as it always has in St. Louis. I found a New York Times story by Tyler Kepner on Molina during the 2013 World Baseball Classic that had a wealth of insight from Tony La Russa on what makes Molina so damn special to his teams.
“He just doesn’t allow his team to lose,” La Russa said. “It’s entertainment at the highest level. He is so good, it’s amazing. You watch him the whole game, and he’s worth the price of admission.”
La Russa continued: “It’s not just instinct. It’s a sense, based on how a hitter’s standing, how he responds to the pitch or two before, and he’s very creative in how he makes his adjustment based on what he sees with the hitter and knowing what his pitcher can do. That’s art.”
I don’t think there’s any question that Molina is worth the money, and I’d wager that Tony La Russa — who always speaks so passionately and adoring about what he brings to the table — would agree.
Yadi as a backup?
Sure, it’s tough to imagine a legendary player with a fiery grinder personality coming to Chicago — or anywhere else for that matter — to do anything but be a starting catcher. But, he’s 38-years-old and it might just be time to transition into a new role that can help a team win a championship.
In a July 2018 story with ESPN’s Marley Rivera after former Cardinals’ skipper, Mike Matheny was fired, Molina was adamant that he’d love the chance to be a player-manager in the final year of his contract in 2020.
“For any player, that would be a dream to be considered for such a role,” Molina told ESPN’s, Marly Rivera. “It would be a dream. I’m not shutting the door to anything. I am very open. Of course, maybe I would like to spend some time with my family first. But if such an opportunity comes up, obviously I would accept it.”
We know that there’s very little chance of that actually happening, not just in St. Louis where they love Mike Shildt, but anywhere. It’s something we might never see again, but Molina’s desire to do so fits perfectly with the idea of Molina serving as a bridge between his former manager Tony La Russa and the young clubhouse that he’s inheriting in Chicago.
“Of course a lot of the players in that clubhouse have respect for me and talk to me about everything,” he said. “So with my experience, I certainly try to help them, to make things easier for everyone. My main role is to help the team.”
Molina is a respected veteran around baseball, he’s Hispanic, and he has a great relationship with Tony La Russa. He’d do a lot better job dispelling preconceived notions that young Sox players might have about him than any of the other retired players and coaches that La Russa mentioned in his introductory press conference.
Beyond serving as a bridge between 76-year-old Tony La Russa, Molina could provide invaluable experience and instruction to the glut of young arms in the fold for the White Sox. Molina has worked with some incredible pitchers during his time and worked with La Russa’s long-time pitching coach, Dave Duncan in his most premature years as a backstop with St. Louis.
To illustrate, I’ll go back to an excerpt from the aforementioned Tyler Kepner story on Molina at the 2013 World Baseball Classic:
“He is as great a catcher as anybody that’s ever played the game,” La Russa said. “He blocks balls as well as anybody’s ever blocked balls. He throws as quick and as strong and as accurate as anybody’s ever thrown. He thinks and manages a game and a pitching staff as well as anybody ever has. He’s as physically tough, handling the dings and bruises, as anybody in the history of the game.”
There’s a specific story told by La Russa in this column about a late-game mound visit that Molina made in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series against the New York Mets, a story that La Russa called his best example of what makes Yadier Molina the best. You’ll have to read it within Tyler’s column, but trust me, it’s worth it.
In the end, the question here comes down to whether or not Molina would be willing to end his storied tenure with the Cardinals to come here to Chicago and reunite with La Russa?
Many scoff at the idea that Molina would do that, insinuating without basis that Molina would never do this. No chance, not happening. I’m just not buying that logic right now.
Until I see him sign a contract with the Cardinals, I believe that the idea of coming to Chicago, not just as a “backup catcher,” but as a player-mentor, leader, instructor, and confidante of a mind that Molina respects as much as anyone in baseball, Tony La Russa. As a 38-year-old catcher with a chance to build on his legacy by placing his fingerprints all over another young pitching staff and clubhouse, and maybe end it all with a third World Series Championship — seems pretty inviting to me.
Featured Photo: ESPN