MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Cards value Molina more for work behind dish

Leach: Cards value Molina's work behind dish

JUPITER, Fla. -- When the Cardinals committed the fourth-largest contract in franchise history to Yadier Molina earlier this week, they made it clear they view the four-time Gold Glover not as simply a fine Major League player, but as a star and a member of the club's core. If Molina hits like he did in 2011, that valuation is self-evident.

If he doesn't, the club still stands by the assessment. That's the crux of St. Louis' five-year, $75-million commitment to Molina, a deal that will see him reach his 35th birthday before it's over. Based on the Cardinals' take on Molina's defensive value, he doesn't have to hit like he did in 2011 for the deal to make sense. If he does, it's gravy. At least, that's how the team views it.

"A couple of the pitchers led kind of a congratulations to Yadi [after the deal was announced]," said manager Mike Matheny, formerly a catcher in the big leagues. "One of the starting pitchers said, 'The best ever,' and there were a couple of cheers in agreement.

"Those guys understand his value more than sabermetricians could ever start to pick it apart, and what other people inside the game even understand. There's so many intangibles. You can't put numbers to the things that this guy does in helping this team win. And I think that's [exemplified by] two world championships since he's taken over behind the plate."

St. Louis is certainly buying high. Molina's value has never been greater. He's coming off, by far, his best offensive season, as well as a year in which he helped shepherd a sometimes makeshift pitching staff to a World Series title. The departure of Albert Pujols earlier in the winter only increased his leverage.

The fact that Pujols left is part of what allowed the Cardinals to make this deal with Molina. They have a good bit of money coming off the books in the next couple of years, with only Matt Holliday, Jaime Garcia and Molina under contract beyond 2013. They will still need to re-sign Adam Wainwright, but most of the other Cardinals who are soon eligible for free agency will likely be allowed to walk. Molina's deal brings the team's commitment to a little north of $80 million for 2013, before arbitration raises and pre-arbitration salaries.

Molina had his breakout offensive performance in his age-28 season, a more common age for career years than for true increases in level. It all added up to a school of thought that the Cardinals were paying Molina to be the player he was in 2011, and ignoring the risk that he's not really the hitter that he appeared to be last year.

According to a club official, though, that's not the case. In the team's view, it's still a good deal even if Molina regresses some at the plate. That's how much they love his defense and his presence.

"Trying to really quantify these things that aren't traditionally done in our industry is difficult," general manager John Mozeliak said Thursday. "We did the best we could and ultimately did what we felt was fair for both sides."

There absolutely was some blowback regarding the deal, and understandably so -- though not much in St. Louis, where Molina is wildly popular. Contracts of this magnitude almost always go to frontline starting pitchers or star-level hitters, whereas much of Molina's value lies in his defense.

And if evaluating defense is baseball's final frontier, then measuring catcher defense is even beyond that frontier. Even club officials acknowledge that proper measurement of a catcher's defensive performance is a moving target, at best. So many variables are involved -- from throwing out basestealers to pickoffs to framing pitches to calling a game -- that it's nearly impossible to have a true valuation.

That's the gamble the Cardinals are taking: that Molina's non-offensive contributions are in fact worth the kind of money that the club has laid out. Because, as a Cardinals official explained on Saturday, the team did not make the deal with the expectation that Molina will maintain his 2011 hitting. That's the key to the whole deal, from the club's perspective.

They're not betting against it, not by any means. They'd certainly be delighted to see it happen. But the idea is that for a variety of reasons, Molina is worth the money and the years even if he doesn't hit as much from 2013-2017 as he did in 2011.

And, again, the possibility exists that Molina won't regress. The conventional wisdom is that catchers are more prone to decline in their 30s than other players, but the conventional wisdom may well be wrong. Recent research at Fangraphs.com and ESPN.com suggests, in fact, that durable catchers tend to stay durable. Molina may in fact be a better bet than other players to stay effective into his 30s. After all, both of his brothers played into their mid-30s, and one of them, Jose, is slated to be the starting catcher for the Rays and will play most of this season at age 37.

"I think I had my best season at 35, so it depends on how you go about your business," said Matheny, who did in fact turn 35 during his best offensive season. "It depends on being blessed with health and staying on top of it. ... I think we're going to continue to see great things from him for a long time. It's just a matter of his body cooperating."

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.