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Yadier Molina contract extension and getting stuck in the middle

St. Louis Cardinals Yadier Molina

This offseason, as you know, Yadier Molina received a three-year, $60 million extension from the St. Louis Cardinals. That extension takes him through 2020, his age-37 season. At that time, Molina’s 2016 offensive rebound made his poor season at the plate in 2015 look like an outlier. Defensively, he was declining, but he was still one of baseball’s better pitch framers and game managers. So, the Cardinals made a bet that 2016 Yadier Molina was the player they could base their 2018-2020 extension upon.

Molina was a very good player in 2016. His 2.4 Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) was ninth among all catchers and, notably, excludes his pitch framing ability. Taking his 9 framing runs into account and assuming ~10 runs per fWAR, Molina was a 3.3 WAR player. Baseball Prospectus, whose version of WAR (bWARP) is the best version for evaluating catchers, was even more optimistic, pegging Molina at 4.1 bWARP. A three or four WAR player is certainly worth $20 million per year, so the extension doesn’t look too bad through this lens.

Unfortunately, 2016 now looks like the outlier season among the last three years for Yadier Molina. Yes, Molina received an All-Star nod this season, but that appeared more based on name and reputation than on-the-field performance. Molina’s 2017 wRC+ of 82 nearly matches his 80 wRC+ in 2015. He is on pace for only 1.9 fWAR this season (bWARP projections are not available to my knowledge, so from now on we’re using only fWAR). To include the value of his framing, I added his current framing runs and projected his future framing value using a three-year weighted average. Under that method, Molina projects for 2.2 WAR this season.

Next, to project Molina’s total future value, I estimated his current value using FanGraphs Depth Chart projections. Then I applied the average aging curve outlined here. With the emergence of Carson Kelly, I expect Molina to play less in each subsequent season. Therefore, I decreased Molina’s playing time from 135 games in 2017 to 120 next year, 100 in 2019 and 80 in 2020. I have no idea if those are reasonable estimates, but they’re probably better than expecting a flat 130 games through 2020.

Using those projections, cost per WAR projections, and a discount rate of 8% (the methodology is outline in greater detail in the post linked to above), I calculated the following present surplus values for Yadier Molina through 2020.

St. Louis Cardinals Yadier MolinaZach Gifford | THE INTREPID STL

As you can see, Yadier Molina is expected to provide a positive surplus value only once, in 2017. He’s projected to be overpaid in all three years of his extension, and significantly so in 2019 and 2020. The contract extension looks terrible.

Remember, this is a team that publicly admitted that an extra $10-20 million was too high a cost to sign international prospect Luis Robert. A team with a history of underspending relative to its payroll. A team that speaks of payroll strength but cannot afford to outbid on high priced free agents. For this team, the perception of this deal is even worse.

The St. Louis Cardinals made a large, seemingly ill-advised bet on Yadier Molina this offseason. They extended their catcher, who had logged 13,240 regular season innings in his career, for his age-35, 36, and 37 seasons before his age-34 season even started. Now, the team with self-proclaimed payroll limitations and a glaring need for a star will be paying someone who projects as a backup catcher in 2019 and 2020 about $64 million dollars from now until the end of his extension.

Meanwhile, this team sits four games back of first place in its division. Yet, they are unwilling to trade for rental players, even corner outfielder J.D. Martinez, who basically went for a bag of balls. There aren’t many (or any) worthy controlled bats on the market right now. Unless that changes, the Cardinals will need to fill their star void through free agency.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals have already committed more than $119 million in 2020. That commitment is the largest in the MLB. Only one other team (the Giants at $112M) have committed more than $90 million in 2020. The Cardinals current roster construction severely limits their ability to spend money externally in the future. So, can we really expect the St. Louis Cardinals to acquire a star player off the free agent market? The team’s current financial position says no, and the team’s history says no.

The Cardinals are stuck in the middle. They’re not bad, but they’re not very good. While some players have underperformed, the front office can only blame itself for this team’s poor roster construction. A major shakeup is needed to change the team’s trajectory. Will we see that happen this week as the trade deadline approaches? Stay tuned.

Photo credit: @cardinalsgifs