Finding the heir-apparent to the catching thrown in St. Louis has been none too urgent a task. For the last decade plus, Yadier Molina has been building his Hall of Fame case in front of millions of loyal fans sporting his jersey, spouting his stat line, and celebrating his age-defying consistency. Praised for his work with the never-ending line of pitching prospects in the Cardinals organization, perhaps overlooked is Molina’s efforts with young players of all kinds… including those who might someday come for his job (but certainly not until he’s ready to relinquish it).
For a while, it was Tony Cruz. Then Carson Kelly. Now Andrew Knizner. But Molina has outlasted them all, thus far.
It might be wise, then, too look further down the prospect pipeline for an heir that may not be quite so apparent just yet.
About 170 miles north on I-55, a duo of Big League hopefuls are making cases worthy of consideration at a park that has seen the best at work. Molina himself donned the Chiefs logo in 2002, setting a precedent for catching success in Peoria.
Dennis Ortega and Julio Rodriguez share more than just a birthday (both turned 21 on June 11). They’ve shared the catching responsibilities at Class-A Peoria this season, and they share one more thing - something Ortega learned first-hand from Molina at Big League camp this past spring.
“I talked with [Molina] one day and he told me, ‘I don’t like when I’ve got runners on base,’” Ortega recounted. “So, it’s what I don’t like - we don’t like - to let runners on base. So when we’ve got time to get them out, we do it, because we like to help the pitchers get outs.”
At the mere mention of Molina, both young catchers’ eyes light up. Genuine smiles break their serious character. And the adoration flows freely.
“All the time, we watch Yadier Molina on YouTube and the games on TV,” Ortega said. “He’s impressive, you know?”
“The part I like most of Yadi is his focus,” Rodriguez said insightfully. “He focuses on the small things. If any runner is slipping a little bit, he’s watching that. He watches everything. Everything.”
“I learned from Yadi to be a leader on and off the field,” Ortega followed, thinking back on his time with Molina in the spring. “Doing the small things. I learned that from him.”
What they’ve learned — and applied — has turned heads in the Midwest League this season. Together, they lead the league in runners thrown out, catching would-be base stealers at a 46% clip. Rodriguez alone has thrown out 33 of 69 attempted thefts, for a 48% success rate. That rate trails just one former Peoria backstop in franchise history (with at least 40 games)... Molina's 2002 campaign, where he thwarted 52% of stolen base attempts.
Ortega's numbers fall just shy of those marks, thanks to a DL stint that cost him opportunities. And yet, he's in the books with 10 pick-offs in limited playing time, tying him for most by a Chiefs catcher since at least 2003.
They’ve each caught headline-grabbing starts, too (one from Alex Reyes, the other from Paul Balestrieri). And they’ve played an important part in providing consistency for a pitching staff that has fluctuated almost weekly throughout the season, featuring 29 different pitchers and counting.
Asked about being behind the plate for the Balestrieri no-hitter, Ortega admitted he was unaware of the potential history until the 7th inning, when he caught the string of zeros on the scoreboard.
But did that newfound knowledge change anything? No.
“I just kept doing what I was doing with Balistreri,” Ortega said, showing the wisdom and poise that he’ll need to potentially follow in Molina’s footsteps.
As for Rodriguez, having the opportunity to catch the much-anticipated Reyes rehab start was more a lesson in temperament than talent.
“For me the most impressive is his character, you know?” Rodriguez said. “When you see a big leaguer, you see a difference.”
For both young catchers, success in Peoria is just one step on the way to a potential Big League opportunity. And that chance is still an additional three levels away, assuming they make stops in Palm Beach, Springfield, and Memphis on their journey. But that gives them plenty of time to learn and to grow.
A recent addition to the Dirty 35, Ortega caught the eye of resident expert, Kyle Reis with his defensive skill set, despite the offensive numbers that still need to come around.
“…about a month into the season Ortega started to make consistent hard contact and that's helped him put up a season long slash line before the hamstring injury of 284/344/390/734 in 144 at-bats. That stat line isn't the most impressive that you'll find in the system, but if Ortega can continue to hit like that as he moves up the organization then he'll be a major leaguer.”
That improved hard contact? Not an accident.
“Last year I tried to hit the ball as hard as I can,” Ortega said. “This year I’m just trying to get good contact. I can see the results.”
And while Rodriguez is more of an unknown as far as prospect lists go, he goes back to what he saw in Molina - focus.
“For me, the biggest thing is learning with the pitchers,” he said. “Learning to call a better game, trying to stay focused every time, thinking about the hitter at the plate, and on deck… think about it all.”
Such is the life of a catcher, isn’t it? No plays off. No time for lapses in focus. No wonder catchers are hard to develop and evaluate.
Maybe the good ones are just born that way. Seems to hold up when using the Molina genes as an example. But maybe, the next generation of catching royalty is just now on its way.