Dirty Thirty-Five: Yadier Molina

***As part of "#YadiWeek" here at Birds On The Black, I'm going to try my hardest to give you a pre-2004 write up of the one and only Yadier Molina. This is a view of the prospect. A picture of the last moment that Yadi wasn't a Cardinals' 25-man staple. Since my brain is basically mush, it should be easy for me to take the time machine back to January 2004 and pretend like the last 15 years of Major League baseball didn't happen. Let's have some fun!!!

The last thing is, Yadi's Dirty Thirty-Five ranking is based upon the current make up of the minor league system because I think that it's more fun to see where Yadi the prospect would stack up as compared to the current system.***


***Read as if written in January of 2004


Prospect #4: Catcher, Yadier Molina



Tennessee Smokies

Drafted in the 4th round of the 2000 draft

21-years-old


THE STATS AS OF THE END OF THE 2003 SEASON




THE WRITE UP

Some prospects are just... "prospects". Their story starts when they sign with a pro club. Their ascent up the minor league baseball-mountain is usually pretty obvious: Drafted collegiate players take the minors step by step, playing full season baseball by their second year. High School draftees usually take a little longer, but the good prospects usually make it to a full season club by the time that they are 20-years-old. From that point, those prospects usually take the year-by-year step from A, to AA, then to AAA. Then, an MLB debut awaits those elite-few that make it through the minor league grinder around 23-years-old for a high school drafted player and 24-years-old for a college drafted player.


That;s your average prospect that's. That's a nameless, non-pedigreed player that is part of the masses that has to do a ton to separate themselves from the herd. And that's if everything goes exactly correct.

Then, there is Yadier Molina. You'll recognize the last name of Molina. His older brother Bengie has turned into one of the premier catchers in the majors, placing fourth in the AL rookie of the year award-race in 2000, then winning consecutive gold gloves in 2002 and 2003. You'll also notice that there is another Molina on the Angels' roster by the name of Jose. Jose is also Yadier's brother. While Jose is not of the caliber of Bengie, he does seem like the type of player that could stick around for a handful of years as a defensive-first backup catcher. Catching is undoubtedly coursing through the veins of this family.


If you're keeping track at home, that makes two very good, major league-caliber-defensive-catchers in the Molina family that have already gained major league experience. All indications are that Yadier (pronounced "YAH-dee-air") is right along the lines of his older brothers in that regard. Bengie has even been quoted as saying that Yadier is the best of the bunch. If that is truly the case then Yadier's cabinet should be dotted with plenty of defensive accolades and awards by the time that his career is over. Seems hyperbolic to me, but we'll just have to wait and see.


The best part is, Yadier looks like a Molina. He's that thick frame. Like, SUPER-THICK. If he was an album he'd be named "Thickfreakness" (Shout out to an obscure band based out of Ohio called The Black Keys for putting that out last year). The Cardinals Double-A affiliate Tennessee Smokies have Molina listed at 6'0" 205, but there is no way that he is either 6'0" or 205. I'm willing to bet that Mr. Molina is every bit of 225 pounds and he's probably 6'0" standing on his tippy-toes. That's a lot of weight to put on a catcher's knees and I think that he'd do extremely well for himself to drop as much of that weight as he can, and as soon as possible. Also like his older brothers, Yadier is slow. As my colleague here at Birds On The Black #dennis noted in our group chat, "Molina is a slower Darrell Porter." He needs to get stronger and leaner and that needs to come at the expense of the baby fat that seems to have followed him since birth.


The next thing that separates Yadier from your average prospect is the level in the minor leagues that he is at for his age. You see, Molina is 21-years-old and he's poised to start the season at AAA. The Cardinals have struggled in recent years to develop major league-level players. That also means that they haven't had too many players in the position to make a major league impact by the time that they are/were 22-years-old. With Yadier's advanced defense and a bat that does just enough to draw comparisons to current Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny, it appears that Molina will be making his major league debut sooner rather than later.


On a side note, take a second to really admire the picture of this young man at the top of the article. He kinda looks like the fourth member of a five-person boy-band. You know, the one that you see the least during a music video but who sings with the most passion.


Speaking of passion, one thing that's worth mentioning about Yadier is that he has already developed a name for himself as a fiery competitor. In May of 2002 he was part of a brawl that Cardinals' first base prospect Chris Duncan (the son of pitching coach Dave Duncan) instigated. His role in the brawl ended up netting Molina a nice little five game suspension. The incident happened after Duncan slid hard into Twins' uber-prospect Joe Mauer. In his next at-bat, Duncan was hit with a pitch which caused a delicate situation to escalate. Molina was quick to help his teammate, maybe a little too quick for someone as slow as he is. You'll notice here that the "brawl" was nearly broken up when Molina decided to go get himself some more (and keep an eye out for the right hook that he throws towards the end of the gif):


Molina's bat is the obvious and big question. He walked an underwhelming 6.3% in AA last season while slugging the ball at a less-than-inspiring clip of .332. The slugging percentage in particular makes me really worry about his hitting prospects moving forward. The batting average of .275 and the on-base percentage of .327 is decent, especially for a defense-first catcher, but none of those stats are enough to warrant a tremendous amount of confidence in his bat moving forward. His bat could be best described as "fine, hopefully."


Mechanically, there are some that say that Molina's swing is way too long and slow. He's also been known to mess around with his batting stance on the regular and I'd really like to see him settle into something instead of constantly changing it. I love in-season adjustments, but I'm not a fan of constantly toying around. Hopefully, this comes with maturity and confidence, but you just never know. I'll stay skeptical until I see him maintain himself.


That being said, there are two things in his favor moving forward. First, he doesn't strike out. He posted a K% of 11.3% in Double-A and making contact is always better than not making contact (double play, withstanding). There's reason to believe that he might be able to hit for a little more power if he cleans that body up because of his contact rate/tool. Still, the power should never be overwhelming. Expect a lot of singles and not many extra-bases. He flashed a little power with Peoria in 2002 but that appears to be the outlier and not the standard.


The other thing that that should inspire confidence in Yadier Molina's potential as a hitter is that he was 4.2 years younger than the competition that he was playing against at Double-A. Just think about that for a minute; what the difference in four years of development can make. That's the difference between being a freshman in high school and a freshman in college. It's the difference between being a freshman in college and already having a degree that you'll probably never use. But, hey, at least you have it! Any way, that Yadier was able to hold his own against such advanced and developed players that much older than he was might just be the ultimate sign of his abilities moving forward. Older pitchers should have eaten this kid alive. There is no arguing that his ball-to-bat skill has to be pretty damn good to have only struck out a little over 11% as a 20-year-old in that league and that should bring into question some of the criticism that is levied upon his bat speed. Gotta love that.

Thanks to friend of BOTB Jason Vahling, @Cardinals11in11 for the pic!

However, there is no doubt that Yadier Molina will make it to the majors if for no other reason than he is a damn fine defensive catcher. It's always difficult to gauge a catcher's game calling abilities at the minor league level, but his high baseball IQ is one of the many defensive accolades that you hear most frequently about Molina. Yadier's arm is also a huge asset in his repertoire, as he's thrown out 111 of a potential 244 base-stealers over three minor league seasons. That's good for 45.5%. The one aspect of his game that might need work is in regards to blocking balls in the dirt. There are few catchers in the history of baseball that are as good at it as Matheny is and it's probably unrealistic to expected Molina to ever get to that level. However, Molina and Matheny have developed quite a bond and the rumor is that Yadier's main focus this spring training will be to improve that aspect of his game. I'm willing to bet that he's still better at it than any other 21-year-old in the world, but it isn't yet up to par with the other aspects of his defensive skill level.


As I keep bringing up Matheny, it's worth noting that the question that I am most often asked about in regards to Molina is "Will he replace Matheny when Matheny's contract is up at the end of the 2004 season?" I know that it's a poor answer, but the best that I can do is "I have no idea." If I were in charge, I'd wait to see how Yadier's AAA season goes and I'd give him a September call-up to see what it looks like. Cody McKay is a poor backup catcher to Matheny, but he should be fine in that role for the 2004 season. If I'm being honest, I don't personally feel comfortable handing a pitching staff over to a 22-year-old kid in 2005 without a pedigreed backstop as a safety valve in case the majors are too much for Molina. Ideally, you'd be able to bring back Matheny for another year or two and let Yadier and he split time, but that doesn't seem likely as Matheny is probably due for a nice little payday after the contributions he's made to the Cardinals. Just keep the hunting knife's away from him and everything should be fine.



COMPARISON

While the last name is already there and it'd be really easy to go in the direction of comparing him to either one of his brother's, I'm not going to go in that direction. No, instead I'm going to go even easier and stick with what most of the industry says and say that Yadier ends up being a lot like current Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny but with a higher OBP because of fewer strikeouts. He's been void of anything that relatively resembles a slugging ability so asking for a couple of ten home run season might be a bit much. Matheny's 162 game average of eight home runs, 21 doubles, and a slash line of 245/307/337 as a Cardinal leading into the 2004 season seems like a completely reasonable expectation for the young Molina. Not too bad for a fourth round draft pick. Like with Matheny, Yadier's defense is going to keep him in the majors for years to come.



**Author's note - Yadi would have made me look like an ass. I'm pretty happy about that, too. It just goes to show you how imperfect it is to gauge prospects before they make the majors. Mr. Molina out kicked his coverage. Most of the greats do that. I hope this little write-up helps everyone realize just how luck the Cardinals are to have him**


Thanks to Baseball Reference for their statistical contribution to this tribute.


Thanks for Reading!!

Kyle Reis