JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — For several springs now, the St. Louis Cardinals proclaimed plans to rest Yadier Molina more frequently during the season to keep him fresh for a playoff push.
Such ideas always leave the All-Star catcher shaking his head.
“I don’t understand why people want me to be out of the lineup,” Molina said.
He has a point.
Owner of as many Gold Gloves at catcher as he has All-Star appearances — eight — Molina is a hard man to keep in the dugout.
He’s started fewer than 130 games only once since 2009, the exception coming in 2014 when he tore a thumb ligament.
The 35-year-old Molina is the only starting St. Louis position player remaining from the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series championship team. He’s the general, and he’s ready to compete nearly every day.
Despite the keeping fresh talk, a simple philosophy prompts St. Louis manager Mike Matheny to keep writing Molina’s name on the lineup card so often.
“Whoever’s giving us our best chance that day is going to play,” Matheny said. “He looks great. That’s why he works so hard — so I can give that answer.”
Molina’s value is both easily measured and difficult to quantify.
He’s built himself into a middle-of-the-order bat. Four times in the last six seasons, Molina hit better than .300. Last year, he led the Cardinals with 82 RBIz.
“I think he’s somebody other teams have great respect for,” Matheny said.
No matter how good Molina is at the plate — he entered Tuesday’s Grapefruit League action hitting .297 with three homers before going 0 for 2 in an 8-7 loss to Mets — he’ll always be revered for his defensive play.
Matheny, and former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa before him, considered Molina an on-field extension of the coaching staff because of the way he calls games and manages pitchers.
Unseen by many is Molina’s ability to call the proper pitch to support the Cardinals’ defensive alignment. That skill should be even more pronounced now that infield instructor Jose Oquendo has returned to the Cardinals coaching staff.
Oquendo instructed St. Louis infielders and coached third base for 16 seasons before stepping aside in the spring of 2016 for health reasons. He rejoined St. Louis in the same roles this spring.
“Those two have been around each other for so long, they’ve known each other so well they kind of think the same, so that allows him to kind of position us in spots that maybe seemed weird at the time but it’s almost like every single time they hit the ball where he moved you,” infielder Jedd Gyorko said of Oquendo.
Molina is signed through the 2020 season. In 23-year-old Carson Kelly, the Cardinals believe they have their catcher of the future.
Entering camp, St. Louis planned to have Kelly back up Molina. A converted third baseman, Kelly’s hit at every level. Last year, however, as Molina’s backup in the majors, Kelly’s .283 average with 10 home runs at Triple-A Memphis dropped to .174 and zero homers in 34 major league games.
The Cardinals recognized that Kelly didn’t get enough plate opportunities behind Molina last year to get into a major league groove.
St. Louis sent Kelly and his .100 Grapefruit League average down to Triple-A on Sunday. He needs at-bats, and they weren’t going to come with a healthy Molina behind the plate.
“That kid’s got a future,” Matheny quipped the other day.
While the statement applies to Kelly, Matheny was really referring to Molina.