St. Louis Cardinals' third base coach Jose Oquendo is believed to have one of the strongest arms of any former position player in Major League Baseball. There may just be a few other players who could beat him out, and there are even more who could challenge him in that category, and one of those players happens to be playing under Oquendo – Cardinals' catcher Yadier Molina.
The Puerto Rican native is one of three brothers who are all Major League Baseball catchers (brothers Bengie and José play for the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, respectively). Many consider Bengie to be the best offensive player, but Yadier, the youngest of the three brothers, is easily the most valuable – for his amazing, clutch defense.
Molina has been said to have a "cannon" for an arm, and his game-winning pickoffs at first base or his ability to catch runners stealing proves that. Not only can he throw with power, he can throw with accuracy, making him easily one of the top defensive catchers in baseball, even though he has not been properly recognized for it.
So far in just two full seasons with the Cardinals, Molina has thrown out at or around 42% of base runners who have tried to steal on him – a feat unrivaled by most. Molina has played 292 career games behind the plate, and he has only committed 13 errors during that tenure. He has not won a Gold Glove award yet, having been beaten out by former teammate and now retired catcher Mike Matheny in 2005 and Houston Astros catcher Brad Ausmus in 2006.
2006 was the year many believed Molina would win his first Gold Glove award, but Ausmus held a .003 advantage in fielding percentage, pushing Molina into the second spot. Yadier did beat out Ausmus in assists (80 for the Cardinals' catcher while only 63 for Ausmus), but overall, Brad Ausmus had the better numbers in 2006 – but did he have the intangibles?
Nicknamed "Yadi" by teammates and fans, Yadier Molina has become somewhat of a fan favorite in the St. Louis fan base. He was known for making clutch, game-winning plays on defense, which made up for a horrible lack of offense. The fans chose to accept him for who he is, rather than try and push him to become a better offensive player. Luckily, Molina didn't need the fans' support, and his offense really picked up in the playoffs, perhaps foreshadowing a breakout year in 2007.
In the regular season, Molina was less than stellar at the plate, hitting his lowest career average at .216, while compiling only 49 RBIs, 29 runs, and six home runs. Perhaps Yadier's lone bright spot at the plate was his ability to hit for doubles, as he finished with a career high (26) in that area. Molina's batting average floated around .220 all season long, but something was triggered once he reached October, and he instantly became a post-season hero for the Cardinals.
In the 2006 playoffs, Molina played 14 games, and failed to get at least one base hit in only four of those games. Even better than that is the fact that he only failed to get on base in two games. By the time the Cardinals had won the World Series, Yadier had put up these numbers: .358 batting average, a .424 on-base percentage, two home runs, four doubles, eight RBIs, and six walks.
Molina also had his clutch moments, his biggest coming against the Mets in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series when he hit an eventual game-winning two-run home run in the top of the ninth off Mets' pitcher Aaron Heilman. It put the Cardinals up 3-1, which was the final score and sent the Cardinals to the World Series, where Molina would bat 7-for-17, including a 3-for-4, two run performance in the clinching Game Five in St. Louis.
Yadier Molina's spectacular performance in the 2006 playoffs may be a sign of things to come, and if so, Yadier Molina can be one of the best overall catchers in baseball. With former great catchers such as Tom Pagnozzi and Mike Matheny to suit up for the Cardinals, perhaps the one with the greatest potential is Yadier Molina. He was the youngest starting position player on the Cardinals in '06, and at the extremely raw age of 24, he only has room to improve.
There's a decent possibility that Molina will continue swinging a hot bat in the 2007 regular season, but there is always that chance that he will not be able to keep up that pace, especially at such a young age. Besides, Molina's greatest talent is when he's behind the plate, calling pitches, calming pitchers, and throwing out base runners.
As for his backups, it's basically down to Gary Bennett and recently re-signed Eli Marrero. Bennett got to see quite a bit of playing time last year, and really started getting hot behind the plate in August. He hit four homers in one week – one of which was a walk-off grand slam against the Cubs.
As for Marrero, a player the Cardinals' signed to a Minor League deal, he has a chance to make the team, but it is unlikely. If he does, he will have to put on a strong showing in Spring Training, but after Bennett's clutch hitting in '06, barring injury, it is very unlikely Marrero will see much playing time this year.
Overall Position Grade: B
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