Yadier Molina likely to become one of the highest-paid catchers ever

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Just three catchers in big-league history have signed contracts worth in excess of $10 million per season. That’s about to change.

Yadier Molina heads a class of four free-agent-to-be catchers, all of whom could find themselves in eight-figure territory with big 2012 seasons. Molina is probably the one sure thing in the bunch to draw that much money, but Miguel Montero, Mike Napoli and Russell Martin are candidates as well.

Brian McCann, a free agent after 2013, is also likely to join that club if the Braves want to sign him to an extension before then.

Molina, 29, rates the highest of the class of free agents mostly because of defense, but he also had his best season offensively last year, coming in at .305/.349/.465 in 475 at-bats. He nearly doubled his previous career high in homers by hitting 14. Durability also weighs in his favor. While he battled injuries earlier in his career, he’s now topped 130 games three straight seasons (he failed to do so in any of his first four years).

The Cardinals have been trying to lock Molina up with little success so far. His last deal was a huge bargain for the team, as he’ll have earned a modest $21.25 million for what would have been his three arbitration years and first two free agency years. He clearly wants to make up for that this time around.

And the Cardinals can’t claim poverty in this case, not with Albert Pujols’ salary off the books. They’ll free up another $32 million as the contracts of Lance Berkman, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook expire after the season.

Molina may never again hit as well as he did in 2011, but he’s a top-five catcher anyway. Baseball-reference WAR and Fangraphs WAR agree that he ranks fourth among catchers over the last three years, trailing Joe Mauer, McCann and Napoli (though B-ref WAR has him tied with Carlos Ruiz).

And that would seem to be worth $11 million-$12 million per year, given that Molina is still in his prime. For as often as they get dinged up, catchers don’t age too badly, generally. If the Cards can sign him for $44 million over four years, they should do so now.

Oh, and in case you wondering, here’s that list of biggest contracts for catchers:

Joe Mauer (Twins) – 8 yrs, $184 mil – $23 mil per year
Mike Piazza (Mets) – 7 yrs, $91 mil – $13 mil
Jason Kendall (Pirates) – 6 yrs, $60 mil – $10 mil
Jorge Posada (Yankees) – 4 yrs, $52.3 mil – $13.1 mil
Ivan Rodriguez (Rangers) – 5 yrs, $42.5 mil – $8.5 mil
Ivan Rodriguez (Tigers) – 4 yrs, $40 mil – $10 mil
Jason Varitek (Red S0x) – 4 yrs, $40 mil – $10 mil
Joe Mauer (Twins) – 4 yrs, $34 mil – $8.5 mil

Carter Stewart will get $7 million over six years to play for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

Associated Press
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Yesterday we wrote about Carter Stewart, the American pitcher who, after failing to sign with the Braves last year, went to junior college. Rather than re-enter the draft this year, Stewart has signed with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League.

Jeff Passan of ESPN has the details on that deal: $7 million for six years. That’s five million more than the lowball offer the Braves gave him after drafting him last year and over $2 million more than he would’ve gotten if the Braves had paid him slot last year. This year he was projected to be a second round pick, Passan says, so his slot bonus would’ve been under $2 million.

As Passan notes, though, he has the chance to make out far better than that, though. That’s because his six-year deal would allow the now-19-year-old Stewart to come back to the U.S. as a 25-year-old free agent via the posting system. Passan does some back-of-the-envelope figuring, comparing what he’d make in the U.S. had he stayed vs. the $7 million he’s now guaranteed in Japan:

In a near-optimal scenario, Stewart would receive around $4 million for the next six years — and would not reach free agency until after the 2027 season, when he will be 28. His deal with the Hawks would guarantee Stewart $3 million more and potentially allow him to hit free agency three years earlier.

He could flame out, of course. The Braves’ lowball offer was based on concerns about his wrist. Even without that, there are no guarantees when young arms are involved.

But there is a $7 million guarantee for Stewart now, and the chance to do better than if he had stayed in the U.S. And the opportunity was created, in large part, by Major League Baseball’s clamping down on pay for draft picks and doing whatever it can to extend team control over players via service time manipulation. Stewart, and his agent Scott Boras, are merely exploiting an inefficiency in the market.