Column: It’s time for the Cardinals to lay out the Molina succession plan

It was during the 2002 World Series that I first heard anything about Yadier Molina. His older brothers Bengie and Jose were catchers for the Anaheim Angels during the series. During the game, FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were talking about the Molina brothers who were all catchers and how Bengie and Jose would say, “You think we’re good? Wait until you see our brother.”

At the time, Yadier was just a 19 year old kid who had wrapped up his second season of professional baseball in the Cardinals’ organization. He’d been drafted a year before in the fourth round by the Cardinals and they were definitely onboard with the hype.

The Major League roster and Yadier’s advancement merged perfectly, perhaps exactly to plan, as their incumbent catcher Mike Matheny was a pending free agent. Matheny, a two-time and defending gold glove winner at that point, was widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. But the organization’s plan was clear to anyone with eyes.

Matheny would mentor the youngest Molina for a season before he left in free agency and Molina became the starter in 2005. Matheny would win his third Gold Glove Award in 2004. He would head to San Francisco in free agency and win his fourth Gold Glove Award in 2005, making it his third in a row.

But on the Cardinals, Yadier Molina began to emerge as one of the greatest catchers of his generation, if not Major League Baseball history. A four-time Platinum Glove Award winner, eight-time Gold Glove winner, seven-time All Star, MVP Candidate, Silver Slugger, you name it. If they award it to a catcher, Molina’s probably won it.

Next season will mark Molina’s 13th as the Cardinals’ starting catcher. He will turn 35 this year in what could be his final season with the team. There is a $15 million mutual option for a 14th season next year that, if Molina has his way, will turn into an extension.

Over his years in St. Louis, because he has been so good, that what I like to call the “cult of Molina” has developed.

After the Cardinals traded Joe Kelly to Boston in 2014, he talked about how there were a number of things he had to learn how to do in Boston because he never learned to do it in St. Louis. Yadi handled it. Reading batters, strategizing at bats, and holding base runners isn’t something pitchers have had to deal with because Yadi’s handled all of that.

I think we see struggles with guys stealing bases now because Cardinals pitchers have never worried about holding guys on and now that his skills have diminished in that area, throwing out just 21% of base runners last year from a career average of 42%, runners can take advantage.

You don’t shake Molina either. Kyle Lohse has spoken about shaking Molina off just a few times and allowing a hit each time. But on the other hand, Marc Rzepczynski was never comfortable with the culture in St. Louis that you don’t shake Molina off and he has pitched better since leaving.

I’m not saying that other catchers don’t put in the preparation, but in many ways Molina is a rare combination of talent, skill, work ethic, and preparation. And as Molina’s career approaches its close though, it’s time to lay out the post-Molina road map.

Last winter the Cardinals signed Brayan Pena in the hopes that he would be the guy who could finally allow the team to give Molina more rest and hopefully extend his career. That didn’t happen as Pena injured his knee slipping on a wet dugout step in spring training and Molina logged more innings behind the plate than ever before.

The Cardinals released Pena a few weeks ago in a roster squeeze which left Carson Kelly as the only catcher on the 40 man roster. John Mozeliak indicated during the winter meetings that they’d like to bring in a veteran backup for Molina this year so that Kelly can continue to develop by playing everyday.

But with Kelly on the cusp, the organization has reached a tipping point. You can only hold off Kelly for so long.

If the organization feels like Kelly is Molina’s future replacement, then they need to lay out the road map for Kelly’s transition to the starting role. Perhaps that’s Kelly serving as Molina’s backup in 2018 before Kelly steps into the starters role in 2019, much like Matheny and Molina’s transition in 2004. But Molina would need to know that he wouldn’t have a role on the team for 2019.

I know what you’re thinking. Molina is the face of the franchise. He’s the rock of the pitching staff. Of anyone, he has to retire a Cardinal.

That’s the reaction I always get when I bring this topic up. Eventually the transition to Molina’s successor will have to happen and we’re at the point where once you identify that successor, you need to move on when the new guy is ready. The organization has built their philosophy on not holding up the future for the sake of sentimentality. I love Molina, but the organization can’t afford to string Kelly along as his backup for multiple years like they did with Tony Cruz.

“Yeah, but Cruz was never a good hitter,” is the reaction I usually get when I bright this up. I’ll admit that he wasn’t great, but he wasn’t horrible either. Cruz hit .282 across three levels of the minors in 2010 and would be hitting .262 in Memphis when he got his first call up to the Majors in 2011. He hit .262 over 38 games in the Majors in 2011 and then followed it up, hitting .254 in 2012. But over his final three seasons with the Cardinals, from 2013 to 2015, his batting average collapsed to just .203.

In my opinion, a big factor in Cruz’s declining performance was playing time. Pitchers were able to get ahead of him and stay ahead of him because he wasn’t getting enough opportunities to learn and adapt at the plate. Whenever he did get a stretch of playing time while Molina was injured, he would usually string together a few excellent games at the plate, perhaps giving a glimpse at what he could have been.

Because of this, ensuring that Kelly gets consistent playing time and doesn’t waste away for too long as a backup is of utmost importance to the future of the Cardinals. If they wait too long, will we see the same struggles that Tony Cruz had?

If Kelly isn’t viewed the successor, then the organization should put him to use. Use him as trade bait or use him as the backup now. The only reason to delay him at this point is to time up the hand off. But that requires actually handing the job off at some point. It’s time to figure out exactly when.