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JUPITER, Fla. • Concluding a process that the player earlier termed “business” and that the club considered an essential tie to its future, the Cardinals Thursday announced agreement on a five-year extension with catcher Yadier Molina, a talent they admit has no comparable within the game.
A franchise not three months removed from losing its signature player to free agency retained Molina by guaranteeing him $75 million from 2013-17 with a mutual option for 2018. The Cardinals will pay the four-time Gold Glove catcher a $1 million signing bonus within a deal that provides full no-trade protection and lacks deferred money.
Molina’s extension features a $15 million average annual value, second among catchers only to the 8-year, $184 million deal negotiated by the Minnesota Twins’ Joe Mauer in 2010. It also reconciled his desire to remain with the defending world champions while receiving compensation befitting a player the club frequently called the industry’s best at his position.
“I was still thinking it was a business. My idea was to stay here. My commitment was to stay here with this organization because I know how great it is,” Molina said.
Terms of the deal underscore Molina’s importance to a franchise that until Thursday had only two players – left fielder Matt Holliday and lefthanded starting pitcher Jaime Garcia – under contract beyond 2013.
Molina, 29, is certain to play the majority, if not all, of his career with the team that drafted him in 2000 and promoted him to the major leagues in 2004.
“It’s everything. I grew up here,” Molina said. “ 'Mo’ drafted me in 2000. I feel good here. It was my first choice to stay here, and I’m glad we got it done.”
Thursday afternoon’s announcement fell three days after the Post-Dispatch reported the sides closing on a deal and a week after agent Melvin Roman arrived in camp in an attempt to jump-start stalled talks. Roman insisted upon his arrival that his client would not entertain additional offers once the season began. Having learned the risks of taking that path last December when unable to retain first baseman Albert Pujols, general manager John Mozeliak adopted the posture of a motivated buyer to prevent Molina from reaching the market.
Failing to reach an agreement before the season “wasn’t going to be a great outcome,” Roman said. “It would have been a more difficult situation for both sides. Yadi’s goal was to stay. That’s why we tried to get it going at this time.”
As tribute to his defense and his recent evolution as a hitter, the Cardinals made Molina the game’s second-highest-paid catcher though he never has produced more than 65 RBI and only once hit more than seven home runs in a season.
Molina has defined his position for the majority of a 7½-season career while transforming himself from a nominal offensive player into one who twice has hit .300 and last season led the Cardinals in batting.
Appearing in 139 games in 2011, Molina set career highs in home runs (14), extra-base hits (47), average (.305), on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.814) and RBI (65).
The Cardinals placed a premium on what Molina means as a defender – a quality rarely noted when players redefine the market at their position.
“Trying to really quantify some of these things that aren’t traditionally done in our industry is difficult,” Mozeliak said, “But we did the best we could and ultimately felt we were at a point where it was fair to both sides.”
Ultimately, a club reluctant to set the market on players did so with a player who represents a deterrent more than an offensive enforcer. Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. referred to Molina as “a franchise-type player.”
Molina, 29, has appeared in 415 games and caught more innings (3,464) the past three seasons than any other major-league catcher. He has been awarded a Rawlings Gold Glove each of the last four seasons and last year was named the company’s Platinum Glove recipient, emblematic of his league’s top defender at any position.
Since 2005 Molina leads all major league catchers with a 39 percent success rate against would-be base-stealers. His 38 pick-offs also leads the majors in that span, easily outdistancing runner-up Miguel Olivo (16).
“It’s really hard to pigeonhole this in one area because he’s a unique player,” Mozeliak said. “Given how you value that position defensively, he’s the best in the game and he deserved to be compensated accordingly”.
“It’s hard to find comps for catching,” noted DeWitt. “I think Yadi’s tangibles and intangibles add up to a premier player. Plus, he plays so much. Consider all the games he’s played.”
The extension includes a $15 million mutual option for 2018 that could make the package worth $88 million over six years. Molina would turn 36 during the option year.
Though catchers typically enter decline sooner than other positions, Mozeliak fixated on a more specific trend to allay concern over Molina.
“If you catching at 30, you’re typically catching at 35,” Mozeliak said. “A catcher who has shown he can withstand it (early in his career) is typically not going to have a problem. His health history is pretty pristine.”
Publicly the Cardinals had previously downplayed the notion that unresolved contract status might represent a distraction to a player often described as a de facto coach on the field. Thursday’s signing allowed some to speak more bluntly.
“Guys can put on a front and tell you, ‘I’m seeing a motivated guy and I’m sure we’ll see that no matter what.’ But you’re human, too,” said manager Mike Matheny. “Things of that magnitude are really hard to put completely away. I’m happy for him. I’m happy for the organization. I’m happy for the fan base. I’m happy for me. I told Derek (Lilliquist) he just became a better pitching coach and I just became a better manager.”
Said Molina: “You just want to play the game and not think about the contract or anything outside the lines. You have to concentrate on the game. I’m glad we got it done now.”
Upon walking into Cardinals camp last week, Roman declared that his client would discontinue negotiations once the regular season started. Talks soon gained greater urgency and differences soon narrowed.
DeWitt, asked whether he sensed momentum when Roman arrived, offered, “I didn’t think he was showing up just to watch batting practice.”
“Who knows what would have happened if he had gotten to the market?” DeWitt said. “Ultimately, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity we had to get something done before the season started. We’re glad it worked out.”
The sides recently resumed negotiations far apart on money and length of contract. Molina sought a seven-year guarantee while the club countered at three years, according to a source familiar with the process.
With his client possessing less than eight years’ major-league service, Roman negotiated blanket no-trade protection, something his client otherwise would not have enjoyed until midway through the 2014 season. Molina’s leverage became most obvious in his ability to reject the club’s early demand to defer money.
Teammates had thought the deal a fait accompli for days but news of an announcement gave rise to a universal endorsement within the Cardinals’ clubhouse.
“He makes it easy for the pitcher. He makes it much easier for the defense,” said starting pitcher Jake Westbrook, who quickly appreciated Molina after arriving via trade in July 2010. “I’ve thrown to some very good catchers in my career. But Yadi is without question the best. There’s tremendous value in what he gives a pitching staff and the team as a whole.”
“This is a great day for this organization,” said Adam Wainwright, who has thrown to Molina since 2005. “He’s so important to what happens here. It’s hard to quantify it entirely through numbers. But you see how he works with us, how he controls the running game, how he goes about it . . . you can’t overstate what having him means.”
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