Yadier Molina -- a third-place finisher in the vote for the 2013 National League Most Valuable Player Award, and a perennial Gold Glove Award winner -- returns as a cog for the 2014 Redbirds club. This will mark the second year of Molina's five-year, $75 million deal, a contract that looks even more team-friendly after Brian McCann signed with the Yankees for five years, $85 million this offseason.
Molina, 31, will be starting the second decade of his baseball career, one that already includes four World Series visits, six National League Gold Glove Awards, five All-Star Game invites and a Silver Slugger Award. The latter honor was one Molina received for the first time in his career following a standout 2013 season.
While the Cardinals have long considered Molina to be the best catcher in the game, he seemingly quelled any attempt at arguing otherwise with his production and leadership last year. His impact on a game was seen before the Major League season began, too, as he helped guide Puerto Rico -- and its undistinguished pitching staff -- to the finals of the World Baseball Classic.
Once the big league season started, Molina again assumed the unofficial role of on-field pitching coach. He showcased the skills that make him the gold standard in catching, threw out 43 percent of attempted basestealers, kept countless others from ever trying and started more games than any catcher in the NL despite spending time on the disabled list.
Molina was appropriately called a rock and a rudder, serving as the veteran voice on a pitching staff that featured 13 rookies and 15 pitchers age 26 or younger. Despite so much youth and inexperience, the Cardinals finished fifth in the NL with a team ERA of 3.42. That was a credit to both individual talent and Molina.
With minimal winter turnover on the pitching end, Molina will be working with a similar staff in 2014.
"I don't think you can put a 'games won' or a price tag on what he has done to help our young pitchers," Adam Wainwright said of Molina during the 2013 postseason. "The large majority of our pitchers don't shake one time throughout a game, because they're throwing to Yadi and they know he has a good plan and they trust him. When you have young guys who are just coming up and getting their feet wet and in big spots, they're not thinking about outsmarting hitters. ... He doesn't take all of the pressure off them, because you still have to make the pitch. But it makes it a lot easier to execute."
Durability has long been a bragging point for Molina, who has started more games behind the plate since 2005 than any other catcher in the game. His attempts to stay healthy and on the field should only be helped, too, if baseball is successful in its push to eliminate home-plate collisions.
The Rules Committee is drafting a proposal for the rule change that still must be approved at the January Owners Meeting and by the MLB Players Association.
"Obviously, we have Yadier Molina, who is probably the most elite player at that position, and we want to do everything we can to keep him on the field," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "From our perspective, we would like to see that rule change.
While Molina's stellar work behind the plate has become the expected, it's the improvement he has made at the plate that has pushed him into the conversation as one of the game's elite. His consecutive top-four finishes in the NL MVP race were recognition for his developing into multi-dimensional player, not one who's merely an asset on defense.
Molina is coming off a season in which he hit a career-best. 319 with 44 doubles and 80 RBIs. His .373 average with runners in scoring position ranked sixth best in the league and tops among all NL catchers.
"In your mind, you think superstars just roll out of bed and they are just that good. But this guy's work ethic is incredible," said Rob Johnson, one of Molina's backups in 2013. "I think he's only going to get better, and that's pretty amazing."
Though Johnson was not retained after the season, Tony Cruz remains in the organization and is projected to open the season as the Cardinals' second catcher for a third straight season. His opportunities will be limited as long as Molina has no health issues, but the Cards like Cruz's ability to maintain a strong rapport with the pitching staff despite seldom use.
Catcher Audry Perez, who was among the organization's September callups in 2013, is also on the team's 40-man roster, and he is expected to begin the season in Triple-A Memphis. Ed Easley, who will participate in Major League Spring Training after signing a Minor League deal with the Cardinals in November, provides the organization further depth at the position.