By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Of all the questions the Cardinals know they need to answer before opening day, there is at least one that they already know can’t or won’t be answered until much later in the regular season.
How many games will Yadier Molina catch?
Molina, who will turn 39 in July, is well known for his stamina and heavy workload as he moves into select company in terms of games caught at an advanced age.
Only three catchers since 1970 have caught 120 or more games in a season in which they were 38 or older – Carlton Fisk, Bob Boone and Jorge Posada.
Boone caught 144 games at age 38 for the Angels in 1986.
“This is a question and topic we talk about every year,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “To some level we have to come to grips with Yadi has to understand where he is at in his career and balance that with us trying to create really a succession plan and pipeline of sort of the next person who is going to get that catching role.”
Molina, who has started 1,923 games behind the plate in his career, started 42 of the Cardinals 58 games in the shortened 2020 season. Matt Wieters started 12 games and Andrew Knizner only four, being limited to just 17 plate appearances.
Wieters became a free agent after the season and Knizner, now 26 years old, is expected to be Molina’s backup this year.
“When you look back to 2020 he (Knizner) didn’t get the opportunities that maybe we envisioned,” Mozeliak said Friday. “We played a 58 gamer season so things didn’t play out maybe the way we hoped. But as we look at 2021 we’ve got to be very cognizant of trying to find at-bats and game experience at the major-league level for somebody like Knizner. There’s always trade offs, but as we look at 2021 I think we can confidently say we have to balance playing time with Yadi with some level of development and gaining experience for that next generation.”
In the last three full seasons, Molina has caught 133 games in 2017, 121 games in 2018 and 111 games in 2019, dealing with injuries in the later two years.
Mozeliak declined to say whether Molina’s projected playing time was part of the negotiations before he agreed to a new one-year contract for this season.
“We talked about a lot of things and ultimately it came down to us being able to settle on a value point that we both agreed upon,” Mozeliak said.
“Of course I have an idea of what I think that should look like (Molina’s playing time) but it’s day three of camp and why put something out there that is ultimately going to change five times even before we get into April and once we get to April. I don’t think drawing a line in the sand makes a whole lot of sense today.
“Yes we have some ideas internally what this looks like but from a public consumption standpoint I think it’s more ‘to be determined.’”
Knizner said earlier this year that he did not consider 2020 a “lost” year in his development, despite the lack of playing time, talking about how intently he studied video and analyzed games to try to improve himself mentally even if he wasn’t playing actual games.
He ramped up that computer work even more this winter, which was a combination of what he wanted to do to personally prepare and some of what the team asked him to do.
“I tried to get better every day,” Knizner said. “That was my main focus.”
Other news and notes from the Cardinals camp on Friday:
*Mozeliak said even though the Cardinals would like to play all nine-inning games this spring, he said some other teams had contacted him about the possibility of shortening games to seven innings during the first week and that it was possible that could happen.
“We understand other teams are dealing with their own circumstances,” he said.
*Jordan Hicks, coming off Tommy John surgery in 2019 and missing 2020 because of COVID concerns, had a normal recovery day after his first bullpen of the spring. He is scheduled to throw again on Saturday.
*Julio Rodriguez, another catching prospect, is dealing with an injury to his hand/wrist area which is why he did not receive an invitation to the big-league camp. Mozeliak said Rodriguez will be in camp soon for a medical evaluation but that the team expects he will have surgery on his hamate bone.
*More position players have checked into camp, including outfielder Dylan Carlson, and begun the intake process of COVID testing. Mozeliak said he expects all of the roster and non-roster players to be in camp by Monday.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports