2011 Key Player: Yadier Molina

Of all the Cardinals starters, perhaps none is more important than Yadier Molina.

Molina does so many things well on defense. He understands Dave Duncan’s philosophy and his staff’s strengths/weaknesses. His arm is lethal – he has thrown out 49% of would-be base stealers in his career. Last season runners faced a coin flip when trying to steal; they had a 50/50 shot of making it (51.4% success, 48.6% failure). It goes almost without saying he was ranked the #1 defensive catcher in baseball for 2010. Any contribution he makes at the plate is icing on the cake, and his numbers had improved steadily 2010.

He is a 3-time Gold Glove and 2-time All-Star. He is the defensive rock of this team.

Molina was the 113th pick of the 2000 draft, taken as a seventeen year-old from Maestro Ladislao Martinez HS in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico. He spent one year each in Rookie, A, AA, and AAA ball. His offensive numbers were never great – his best ‘year’ was 37 games at AAA Memphis, where he posted a .302/.387/.372 line – but he was a stud on defense. Molina threw out 45% of all runners who dared to steal while in the minors. The Cardinals deemed him ready and promoted him, at the ripe old age of 21, to the majors, after Mike Matheny went on the DL with a strained muscle in his side.

He started his first game on June 3 against Pittsburgh, singling and doubling in 4 trips to the plate. His hot start didn’t last, as he hit .229/.349/.297 over the next 11 games. Still, the Cardinals decided to keep him on the roster when Matheny returned and sent Cody McKay down. Molina appeared in 4 games during the 2004 post-season, getting 1 hit in 7 PA. He was involved in a memorable (at least to me) verbal ‘discussion’ with Manny Ramirez during Game 4 of the World Series, after it appeared Ramirez was tipping pitch location while standing on second base earlier in the game.

Matheny left for San Francisco following the 2004 season, making Molina the starting catcher. He did split time that season with Einar Diaz and Mike Mahoney, appearing in only 114 games, but he got 421 PA, and caught every inning of the Cardinals 2005 playoff run. He caught 126 games in 2006, but his bat continued to slumber, and even regress, until another memorable moment – this time, his Game 7 ninth inning HR propelling the Cardinals into the World Series.

After that his regular season hitting statistics started to climb, and he posted OPS’ of 85, 95, and 100 in each of the next 3 seasons. 2010 was the first year since 2006 that his hitting regressed, and he finished with an OPS of 84. He still caught 136 games before being shut down due to a variety of nagging injuries.

St Louis has seen fit to keep a veteran catcher on the roster as Molina’s backup, usually an average defender with no bat at all. Because of this, and the fact those men have been an average of 34.8 years old, Molina has caught a ton of innings early in his career. Molina’s defensive ability and offense are well-known quantities. The Cardinals desperately need to keep him on the field, but they also need to conserve him so he does not break down late in the year again like he did in 2010.

This year the Cardinals have Gerald Laird in camp, who is at least younger than the previous backups (he’ll be 32 in November). Laird brings recent experience as a starting catcher, having caught 135 games with Detroit in 2009. The fans seemed impressed with his work, as he was ranked #11 among catchers entering the 2010 season. Laird had a terrible year at the plate last season and was eventually replaced by Alex Avila. If he can recapture some of his former ability he represents a significant upgrade from recent backup catchers.

So for the Cardinals, it’s not so much a question of what the team needs from Molina, it’s more a question of what the team can do to keep Molina in the lineup all season. The main thing they can do to assist will be to give him more than the occasional day off, and get him out of games that are no longer in doubt. Molina is the key to their success in 2011. He has to stay healthy all season.

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