Hot Yadi: Molina still cornerstone at catcher

Hot Yadi: Molina still cornerstone at catcher

ST. LOUIS -- With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Spring Training in less than six weeks, it's not too early to begin dissecting the Cardinals' 2017 roster. This is the first of a six-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the team's projected starters and backup options heading into next season. Up first: Catchers. 

Perhaps it's fitting to start this series behind the plate, where, for the last dozen years, there has been one constant: Yadier Molina.

With another Opening Day start in 2017, Molina will join Stan Musial and Lou Brock as the only players in franchise history to start 13 consecutive season openers. Molina is not only distinguished as the longest-tenured member of the organization, but he's also been among its most durable, a remarkable feat given the demands of his position.

Conjecture about how Molina's playing time might regress with age has been thwarted by his insistence that he play as much now as he did in his younger days. In fact, Molina, who turned 34 last July, will enter 2017 on the heels of a season in which he started more games (142) and logged more innings (1,218 1/3) behind the plate than ever before. Both figures also finished as Major League-highs.

Statcast: Yadi catches Howard

Whether this becomes the year the Cardinals start to rein in that workload isn't yet known. Molina, who has two years remaining on his contract, will dictate that by his level of play.

There were signs of slight defensive regression last season, as Molina allowed a career-high-tying eight passed balls and had a career-low caught-stealing percentage of 21. Blame for the latter, though, also falls on the pitchers, many of whom struggled to hold runners on.

Molina's game-tying home run

Molina's rapport with pitchers remains strong, however, and, according to Statcast™ measurements, he stole the same percentage of strikes with his pitch framing in 2016 (5.62 percent) as he did the year before.

Yet, Molina's value in 2017 won't be entirely tied to his work behind the plate. With a revamped lineup, the Cardinals hope Molina's offensive production warrants his return to a middle-of-the-order spot. Though his power has waned since a 22-homer season in 2012, Molina is coming off a year in which he slashed .307/.360/.427 and led all catchers in average, hits (164) and doubles (38).

The Cardinals have been preparing for life after Molina, whenever that may come, and in the process have developed one of the game's best catching prospects in Carson Kelly. But even after a breakout year in which he earned organizational Minor League Player of the Year honors and showed himself capable of catching in the big leagues, Kelly likely won't open the season as Molina's backup.

Kelly's RBI single

Instead the Cardinals prefer Kelly to continue his development at Triple-A, where he can play regularly. At 22 years old and with only three years of catching experience, Kelly could use the additional seasoning.

That positions Eric Fryer, who returned to the organization under a Minor League deal, as the likely backup to Molina entering the season. Fryer, 31, filled that role for the first half of last season, even though it came with just eight opportunities to start. But he looked plenty capable in that small sample size and surprised with a .368/.415/.421 slash line.

Alberto Rosario, who likewise started eight games behind Molina last season, could also make a Spring Training push for that backup job.

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.