Quite a week

The last few days have been game-changers for the St. Louis Cardinals and, really, all of baseball.

The Yadier Molina Effect
This week, the Cards signed their all-star catcher to a five year, $75 million extension. It is one of the biggest deals for a catcher in baseball history, and ranks among the top contracts ever given out by the Cardinals. The two sides completed the deal just days after Molina’s agent laid out a familiar refrain that the player would not negotiate once the regular season started. This would have all but guaranteed Molina would test the free agent market after the 2012 season.

The progression of events was becoming strikingly similar to what the Cards went through with Albert Pujols before the 2011 season, so they struck while they still could. Molina anchors the pitching staff and is the de facto on-field manager. He controls the running game like no other catcher in the league. He is a clutch hitter and a leader in the clubhouse. Losing him—especially while the departure of Pujols was still so recent—would have been devastating to the franchise.

But the deal also had a ripple effect across the league. Almost immediately, other pending free agent backstops like Russell Martin and Miguel Montero decided to stop talking with their respective teams about contract extensions. While Molina has virtually no peer defensively, a number of catchers put up better offensive numbers and will likely use the deal given by the Cards as a basis for their demands.

The Cardinals may have slightly overpaid on this deal, but that’s not uncommon when trying to keep a player in his prime off the free agent market. But it’s curious that Molina and his agent would employ the same tactic Pujols’ camp did by setting a deadline for the end of negotiations. Was Molina coached by more than his agent on this move? Was he just imitating his friend’s tactics from the year before? Or is this the new way to entice a club into pulling the trigger sooner on a deal they know they have to make anyway? Time will tell…

Another Wild Card
Also this week, Major League Baseball expanded the postseason by adding an additional Wild Card team to each league. Starting with the 2012 postseason, the two Wild Card teams in each league will play in a one-game elimination playoff with the winner moving on to play the team with the best record in the league. For this year only, the Division Series also has to be altered so the lower-ranked team plays the first two games at home and the higher-ranked team plays the next three at home because of scheduling and travel complications.

Obviously this gives all teams in the majors a better shot at postseason play. And MLB is most definitely also trying to capture more of the drama that is a one-game elimination playoff, which has at times proven to be some of the most exciting baseball of the year.

But is this a watering down of the MLB playoff system? In the last 20 years, the league has more than doubled the number of teams allowed into postseason play. Are they simply trying to manufacture drama at this point?
Once the details of the plans were released, the internet was buzzing with scenarios and “what-ifs” regarding both the past and present. For instance, the drama surrounding Game 162 in 2011 would not have existed if the new rules were in play. Both the Cardinals and Braves would have been in on the last day of the season and preparing for their one game playoff to determine who met the Phillies. The Red Sox and Rays would have been in a similar scenario over in the AL. And as we all know very well, anything can happen in one baseball game.

The flip side, of course, is that the expanded opportunity is a good thing for teams that always seem to be on the cusp but can’t quite break through. The Toronto Blue Jays come to mind. But imagine a playoff bracket with three teams from one division getting in. Seems strange, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s only strange for the teams that still can’t seem to find their way into October.

Because we all know if the Cardinals end up being the second Wild Card team in 2012, this will be the best thing MLB has ever done, right? I think I like their chances even more now…

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