By R.B. Fallstrom/The Associated Press
JUPITER, Fla. — The St. Louis Cardinals made certain another big star did not get away.
Four-time Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina agreed to a five-year, $75 million contract Thursday that kicks in next season and will keep him in St. Louis through the 2017 season. The deal makes Molina, long known for his premier defense and with a much improved bat, the second-highest paid catcher in the majors.
“He’s the best catcher in the game,” teammate Carlos Beltran said. “When you have the best catcher in the game you have to sign him. It’s great for the organization, to keep a guy like that.”
Unlike Molina’s close friend Albert Pujols, who bolted for a 10-year, $240 million deal with Anaheim in December, the Cardinals stepped up before another of their cornerstone players entered the final year of his contract. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. called Molina a “franchise-type player.”
“I don’t think there was added pressure,” general manager John Mozeliak said. “When you look at a core or elite type player, that’s how we view them.”
The total price tag could easily top $90 million over seven seasons with Molina due to make $7 million this year and a mutual, $15 million option for 2018. The deal trails only the Twins’ Joe Mauer (eight years, $184 million) among catchers.
Molina won his second World Series with St. Louis last fall and said, “I’m happy to be a Cardinal for 5-6 more years. I’m looking to like six more championships. This is a great organization.”
“I grew up here, I feel good here,” Molina said. “It was my first choice to stay here.”
Talks accelerated after Molina’s longtime agent, Melvin Roman, arrived at the team’s spring training site last week. Roman has represented the catcher since he signed his first contract with St. Louis in 2000, when Molina was a fourth-round pick.
“The whole process was very easy,” Roman said. “We worked very hard to get it done.”
The 29-year-old Molina is a lifetime Cardinal and one of the best defensively at any position, winning a platinum glove last season in voting by fans. He also is coming off the best offensive season of his career.
Molina batted .305 in 2011 with 14 home runs and 65 RBIs, and added 12 RBIs during the team’s World Series title run. He’s been durable, too, averaging 138 games the last three seasons.
Put it all together, and the body of work stood out for the Cardinals.
“He’s at the peak of his career and we’re just thrilled to have him,” DeWitt said. “He’s a premium player, plus he plays so much. We were both highly motivated to get this done.”
Both Mozeliak and DeWitt said it was more difficult to project what Molina might have made had he waited for free agency because defense is such a large part of the position. Mozeliak consulted new manager Mike Matheny, a former three-time Gold Glove catcher, several times and said Matheny’s response was that pursuing a long-term deal with Molina was a “no brainer.”
“When you think about traditional metrics today, it’s more offense-oriented,” Mozeliak said. “But when you factor in not only the hardware he’s received but also the intangibles that go into a position like catcher, when you talk to our pitchers they’re thrilled this was done.”
Matheny caught for St. Louis from 2000-04, leaving for free agency in 2005 after losing his job to Molina. He said Molina came to camp motivated and has set the tone for younger players.
The Cardinals had been saying since the start of spring training that they were hopeful of reaching a deal. Molina came to camp with a stance hardened by Pujols’ departure, and said the team would not get a hometown discount. He didn’t set a deadline for getting a deal done but was happy to have it out of the way before the season.
“I still think this is a business, but my idea was to stay here and my commitment was to stay here,” Molina said. “We had a pretty good idea we were going to leave the door open for them.”
The Cardinals had offered Pujols more than $200 million over 10 seasons, and have used those funds and more to build a contender without the three-time NL MVP. Beltran signed a two-year, $26 million free agent deal and shortstop Rafael Furcal re-signed, getting a two-year, $12 million contract.
St. Louis has payroll flexibility going forward, with contracts totaling more than $30 million for first baseman Lance Berkman and pitchers Kyle Lohse and Jake Westrbrook due to expire, and value Molina’s role with tutoring young pitchers. The team has a payroll of around $115 million heading into this season.
Molina is the youngest and most talented of three brothers to catch in the major leagues. His arm has been particularly deadly on pickoff picks at first base with Pujols, but he’ll need to develop teamwork with Berkman this season.
Molina has thrown out 44 percent of basestealers for his career, better than Mauer’s 35 percent, with 41 pickoffs. The opposition rarely runs on him, averaging just 56 attempts his seven full major league seasons.