Could the Yankees make a free-agent run at Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina? Sure. Yanks catcher Gary Sanchez, 28, had a terrible 2020, and the New York front office isn’t convinced he’ll bounce back in 2021. 

In a late-November interview with Laura Bonnelly on the Mas Que Pelota podcast Molina said he’d received interest from the Yankees, Mets, Padres and Angels. The Mets have since signed free-agent catcher James McCann to a four-year deal for $40 million total, so scratch them from the list. That leaves (presumably) the other three teams in play for Molina. 

Let’s make a quick inspection of each team, and I’ll save the Yankees for last. 

The Padres: According to the current depth chart at Roster Resource on FanGraphs, San Diego’s starting catcher is Austin Nola, age 31. The backup is the light-hitting Francisco Mejia, 25. (The Padres have high hopes for catching prospect Luis Campusano but his status is uncertain after some legal troubles.) Nola played 19 games for the Padres in 2020 after a late-season trade from Seattle. He can hit, as shown his 120 OPS+  in 451 big-league plate appearances. But Stassi has been more of an all-purpose player, having played at first base, second base, third base and outfield. He’s worked as a catcher in only 51 MLB games. In fairness Nola has performed well defensively as a catcher, receiving positive marks for his pitch-framing and all-around work behind the plate. But are the Padres prepared to fully commit to Nola as their No. 1 catcher? I suppose we’ll find out. Because it’s unlikely to expect Molina to accept a backup job, or time-share role, for any team. They’d have to make it clear to Molina: he’s their starter. The Padres have a very good team, and have a chance to hunt for a pennant in 2021. That part would be appealing to Molina, but only if he’s the guaranteed No. 1 catcher. The Padres are close. They have young pitchers that would benefit from Molina’s championship experience and leadership. This is a fit. And San Diego has other lineup places for Nola. 

The Angels: The incumbent, Max Stassi (age 30) is No. 1 on the depth chart. The listed backup is Anthony Benboom, 31. Stassi is strong defensively, ranking 10th in Fielding Runs Above Average since 2019 among catchers with at least 2,000 framing chances.And he’s scored very well in the FanGraphs catching metrics. But Stassi’s MLB catching experience isn’t deep (214 games.) And for his big-league career Stassi is around 20 percent below league average offensively. He did display healthy power in 2020, but on only 90 at-bats. And his .713 OPS at Triple A was hardly imposing. Stassi is an above-average defender with low upside offensively … meaning that he is, in some ways, a younger version of the age-38 Molina profile. The question: how much do the Angels value Molina for his experience and leadership? But at this stage of his career, does Molina want to go to work for a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2015, and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014? The Angels have missed making the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 seasons. But if Yadi misses playing with close friend Albert Pujols, here’s an opportunity to be Albert’s teammate Pujols’ final season in Anaheim. 

The Yankees: No. 1 catcher Sanchez is backed up by Kyle Higashioka, 30, who has played in only 72 total games for NY over the last four seasons. But I point that out for a reason: Sanchez was so awful last season that manager Aaron Boone benched him in the playoffs and went with Higashioka.

(Part of that was because of Gerrit Cole, who likes throwing to Higashioka. Then again, doesn’t that say something about Sanchez? Bottom line: Sanchez played in only three of the Yankees’ seven postseason games) 

Sanchez had a brutal 2020 season, batting .147 with a .618 OPS in 178 plate appearances. And since the start of the 2018 season Sanchez is a .200 hitter with a .296 onbase percentage. The power is still there, but at a reduced level. In his first three seasons Sanchez had a .567 slugging percentage. In his last three seasons, Sanchez has slugged .453. And he’s a poor catcher, rated below average in pitch framing, blocking and Fielding Runs. 

When the Yankees got ejected from the 2020 postseason by Tampa Bay, GM Brian Cashman put Sanchez on notice. Asked about Sanchez being the starter in 2021, Cashman said: “That’s certainly a fair question.” 

And in a Zoom call with Yankees’ media earlier this week, Cashman was asked if Sanchez would be the starting catcher in 2021. 

“Going into spring training I would think he would be the heir apparent, even though the season ended the way it did,” the Cashman said. “I think (manager) Aaron Boone had to make a decision based on how Gary was playing and what he was representing at the time, which wasn’t what we believe to be the true version of Gary Sanchez. “And if that is the true version, I don’t think we would have tendered him a contract. 

“We believe that the sample size of the 2020 season would be hard pressed to judge really anybody both in a favorable spot or a negative spot. The sample size was so small, so we’re going to certainly bet on him returning to form, the All-Star caliber player he was prior to the 2020 season.”

“We’re going to certainly bet on him returning to form, the All-Star caliber player he was prior to the 2020 season. I know some people might take that as an excuse, but we’re just making what we believe is a safe bet. But there is, at the same time, risk to it because Gary’s going to have to prove that 2020 was an aberration.”

Cashman said a lot there — and much of it optimistic in nature. But the GM also held back, which clearly sent a message to Sanchez: he must prove himself to hold onto the job. Sanchez, 28, is playing Winter Ball in the Dominican Republic in an effort to sharpen his swing and defensive game. 

What this means for Molina, we don’t know. But the Yankees aren’t 100 percent committed to Sanchez as their catcher. And the career .502 slugger can always be used as a DH. 

Molina’s strong preference is to remain in St. Louis and end his career with the Cardinals. I’d be surprised if Molina left the Cardinals. But with the negotiations off to a slow start, we should take nothing for granted. 

READING TIME 5 MINUTES

Just a terrific final 20 minutes by Saint Louis U, which shot just under 59 percent second half (for a 51-point half) in their 80-69 win over shorthanded N.C State. With the victory, the Billikens moved to 6-0 this season and moved up to No. 32 in the KenPom ratings. We’d be surprised if SLU didn’t crack the AP Top 25 poll on Monday. The Billikens are playing well so far. Coach Travis Ford has one of the best “two-way” teams in the nation during the early phase of the schedule; at KenPom SLU ranks 27th in Division 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and 47th in adjusted defensive efficiency. And the Billikens are No. 7 nationally in effective field goal percentage (59.5%.)

Former Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha — hero of the 2013 postseason — has signed with defending AL champion Tampa Bay. It’s a one-year deal for $3 million. Smart move by a smart front office. Wacha’s surface numbers for the Mets weren’t good in 2020; in eight games (seven starts) he went 1-4 with a 6.62 ERA over 34 innings. One issue just must be corrected: Wacha had the lowest ground-ball rate of his career (38.8%) and that led to the worst home run rate of his career (2.38 per nine IP.) Pardon the small sample sizes, but Wacha struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings last season, the best of his career — and had the lowest walk rate.  Another thing to keep in mind: Wacha allowed a flukish .366 batting average on balls in play; that almost certainly will go down as he moves forward. Wacha’s xFIP wasn’t great (4.30), but it was more in line with his actual 2020 performance than the bloated 6.62 ERA. Wacha turns 30 on July 1, and we wish him success in Tampa Bay. 

A note on the retiring Alexander Steen: among forwards, only Bernie Federko (352), and Brian Sutter (303) played in more regular-season games than Steen (195) in Blues franchise history.. The Blues had one player on ESPN’s list of Top 100 Prospects: defenseman Scott Perunovich, at No. 59. “Last year’s Hobey Baker winner in college hockey has been on a skyrocketing upward trend in his development,” analyst Chris Peters wrote. “Perunovich was an offensive driver for one of the best teams in the country. His transition from offensive weapon to dominant force in the NCAA was incredible to witness, and he could now push for a spot with the Blues right away this season.” 

Mizzou can’t lose at Mississippi State on Saturday. The Tigers have to rebound from a bad loss to Georgia and prevail in Starkville to finish 6-4 on the regular season. Since opening the schedule with a stunning 44-34 win over defending national champion LSU, the Bulldogs have gone 1-7. And the upset over a retooling and struggling LSU team wasn’t as shocking as it seemed at the time. MSU’s only victory since then is 24-17 over weak Vanderbilt. And though Mississippi State did play respectably in a seven-point loss at Georgia, Coach Mike Leach’s offense has scored no more than 24 points in a game since knocking off LSU. And the Bulldogs have scored 14 or fewer points in five of their last eight games. They rank No. 119 among 127 teams in points per game. Mizzou has to take care of business down south and maximize their chances for a spot in a more prominent bowl game. I understand that the Tigers are inexperienced at cornerback because of injuries.(And you can expect Leach to dial up passes, all day long.) I know that MSU plays tough defense. It won’t be an easy game … but just find a way to win. 

When asked during a Q&A session if the Cardinals expected Matt Carpenter to be able to play third base on a daily basis this season, The Athletic’s Mark Saxon said “No. I think they’re going to give him that opportunity at the start of the season, but with a contract that shrinks with each day that passes, they’ll be much less likely to ride it out through an entire season of Carpenter struggles. He is going to have to produce to hold down his spot in the lineup … still, while the team would love to see Carpenter rebound — who doesn’t love on-base skills and power? — nobody is counting on it. He’s just one more option at this point. The Cardinals have few third-base options on the current roster, but they have a ton of good third-base prospects in the system. If one of those guys gets hot, Carpenter might be looking over his shoulder.

THIS DAY IN ST. LOUIS PRO-SPORTS HISTORY: In 2001 the Cardinals chose a replacement for the retiring Mark McGwire by signing former NY Yankee first baseman Tino Martinez to a three-year deal for $21 million. Martinez had only 2.3 WAR over two seasons with the Cards before the team traded him to Tampa Bay …  in 2004 the Cardinals acquired LH starting pitcher Mark Mulder from Oakland for starting pitcher Dan Haren, reliever Kiko Calero and catching prospect Daric Barton. Mulder went 16-8 with a 3.64 ERA for the Cardinals in 2005 but serious shoulder miseries limited him to only 21 starts, 106 innings and a 7.73 ERA over the next three seasons … on this day in 1988 Sid Salomon III died from cancer at age 51. Sid Salomon Jr. and his son Sid III were original owners of your St. Louis Blues … 

AS OTHERS SEE US 

Over at The Athletic, columnist Steve Buckley writes that St. Louisan Jayson Tatum is now the biggest sports star in Boston. That makes sense considering the departures of Tom Brady and Mookie Betts. Tatum, the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, 

“Tatum already has superstardom,” Buckley wrote. “And now, as the Celtics look to another season, and another postseason, we’ll look to see if he can take ‘em all the way. Surely he knows his idol Kobe Bryant was a two-time NBA Finals MVP, right? Jayson Tatum is so much more than the best player on the Celtics. For the torch has been passed: He is the New Hancock Tower of Boston Sports, the biggest thing in town.”

Two other notes on Tatum: 

1–Tatum currently ranks No. 4 nationally in NBA jersey sales behind LeBron James, Luka Dončić and Anthony Davis — and ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant

2–In case you missed it, the Chaminade Prep alumn signed a max contract with the Celtics last month. The five-year deal is worth $163 million guaranteed and can reach $195 million if Tatum is named All-NBA. Boston originally selected Tatum with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Let’s grade the deal.

Wrote SI.com: “He has the ability to become a scoring champion offensively and can capably guard perimeter stars on the other end of the floor. Tatum’s size and athleticism are ideal for his position. His length makes him a tough cover for anyone, and the fluidity to his game at such a young age is remarkable. In 2020, he shot 40.3% from three despite averaging 7.1 attempts per game. Tatum has elite scoring ability and just signed a deal that will take him to only the early years of his prime. As long as he’s in Boston, Danny Ainge will have a legit star to build around.

“And as a bonus for Tatum, this deal reportedly includes a player option after the fourth season. That gives Tatum an opportunity to enter free agency in 2025 when he would be only 27 years old. He could survey his options on the open market, opt in for one more season, or even opt out and re-sign a new max deal with Boston. The Celtics would have certainly loved to have all five years locked in. But building goodwill with your franchise cornerstone is ultimately a small price to pay when he‘s willing to commit for so long. Both parties will benefit from this extension immensely.” 

Earlier this month Tatum discussed the contract and his increasing importance to the Celtics. 

“I don’t come in here and walk around saying it’s my team,” he said. “I don’t take that approach. Like everybody else, I show up for work and do my job the best of my ability,” he said. “I go out there and play. I don’t feel like I need to say or anybody needs to say anything – we all play for the Celtics and are part of the team being successful. I know I’m going to be here for a while and I’m happy for that, but I don’t say or feel like I have to say this is my team. I don’t play that way,” Tatum continued. “We have a bunch of talented guys and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Thanks for reading The Bits, my labor of love for you… 

Have a wonderful weekend, and stay safe.

-Bernie

Listen to Bernie talk sports on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS, each weekday from 3-6 p.m. Listen on  line at 590thefan.com, and download the station app at your App Store. 

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.