When the Cardinals plotted their priorities for the offseason they ranked bringing back “legacy” players Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright near the top, but left out an important element of any plan: a timetable.
The winter plodded along, months melted off calendars, an election and an inauguration happened, holidays passed, and February neared without a single addition to the big-league roster — let alone the returns promised. A Super Bowl came and went and still Molina was a free agent, days away from spring training.
The expected moves took longer than anyone expected.
“It’s a process that you don’t want to experience and at the same time you want to experience,” Molina said of his first brush with free agency. “It was a slow process. I never had a doubt. I knew this day would come. I was expecting earlier, sooner, but I’m ready to go back to St. Louis and put on a show.”
In a furious sprint toward spring that flipped the perception of their offseason, the Cardinals made a series of sweeping moves in the past 12 days and finished Tuesday with the player with whom so much of their identity starts.
Molina and the Cardinals finalized a one-year, $9-million contract for 2021 on Monday night and formally discussed it, together on Zoom, on Tuesday. The straight deal — no option, no lacing up with incentives, sources confirmed — brings Molina back to the only club he’s known for an 18th season. He has the chance to be the first player in history to catch 2,000 games for the same team.
Molina, 38, said his plan is to go year to year, letting health steer his decision on whether to play beyond 2021.
He is the punctuation at the end of two weeks that included the acquisition of Nolan Arenado, the re-signing of Wainwright and a trade of Dexter Fowler to the Angels.
The Cardinals offseason, in brief: Wait, and hurry up.
“I think it would parallel what Yadi said — I wish all this happened two months ago,” said John Mozeliak, Cardinals president of baseball operations. “It really was a slow offseason. A lot of things for us were slow to develop. Obviously the Arenado deal was pretty time consuming because of the importance of adding all three was very logical. To have it all come together at the end — I’m with Yadi. It’s not how I would draw up my offseason. The outcome is what we wanted.”
The Cardinals are set to open spring training in one week, and Mozeliak said the focus in the coming days will be on new health and safety protocols agreed to Monday night by players and owners.
The 108-page manual outlines refined, updated, and some familiar coronavirus protocols for teams as camps open. Mozeliak said he’s “pretty confident with the team we have going into camp.”
The Cardinals will continue to seek some middle-infield depth on minor-league deals, and they will keep tabs on other free agents, such as starting pitchers, even as spring begins.
With the majority of an agreement in place before Molina left to play for Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Series, the contract crystallized upon his return home to Puerto Rico, where he has spent the winter with family, buying a professional basketball team, and playing winter ball.
He joined the Zoom press conference from there.
“I’m fighting with the mosquitos,” he explained at one point. “So I put it on mute.”
Since being drafted by the Cardinals in June 2000, Molina never had spent a day of his professional career without being under contract until last November.
As free agent, he received interest from several teams and compliments from several others, but not offers, or offers that were too desirable not to take. Interest came from both teams in New York at one point, from the Angels at one point, and the Philadelphia Phillies had Molina positioned as their alternate to chase if J.T. Realmuto did not re-sign. The entire winter, Molina ran and trained and readied — without knowing where he was headed.
“Mentally it was tough,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you. To be in the process, to have teams calling you, express (interest) to you, say many things to you, and at the same time nothing happens. It was tough. Mentally it was tough. At the same time, St. Louis was my first choice.”
The reunion with the Cardinals became more likely around the time that Wainwright signed and news surfaced of the brewing deal for Arenado.
Molina and Arenado have split eight of the 10 Platinum Glove awards given in the honor’s history, and they have talked about playing together as Cardinals. Molina said Tuesday that he’s been talking with Arenado “since the last three years, yeah.”
Mozeliak’s eyes bulged at the statement — given that the Cardinals tried to keep their interest quiet, attempting to engage Colorado in trade talks several times before.
After the trade became official, Molina was in Mexico at the Caribbean Series when he got a text from Arenado, hopeful that they would be teammates.
“And then you add Arenado,” Molina said. “Why not come back?”
By the numbers
A nine-time Gold Glove Award winner who has said his goal is to be known as the best defensive catcher ever, not just of his generation, Molina sought a two-year deal that would usher him to retirement. He initially had said the three-year, $60-million extension that just ended was his final contract. But he maintained his health, got his knees feeling better than they did, and joked how in his late 30s he felt better at times than in his early 30s.
The health allowed Molina to burnish a Hall of Fame-caliber career with his 2,000th hit last season and reach for rare numbers for a player at his position at his age. If he catches 100 games, he will be only the seventh everyday catcher to do so at age 38 since 1990 and the first since A.J. Pierzynski did so in 2015.
“If I’m healthy, I will consider going to play one more year,” Molina said. “We’re going year by year. Obviously, that’s the type of contract we are (in). I’m concentrating on this year. Hopefully we stay healthy and we win the championship this year and after that, we’ll look and see and decide what the future is.”
After all, that talk can wait.
Molina did that long enough to stay.
“I was hoping for St. Louis to step up and put something on the table, and that’s what they did,” Molina said. “That’s the place I want to be. That’s the place I want to finish my career. I was waiting for them. That’s why we took so long.”