The Cardinals announced this afternoon that longtime catcher Yadier Molina has returned to the organization as a special assistant to President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak. Following the announcement, Mozeliak spoke with reporters (including Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat) regarding Molina’s role in the organization.
Mozeliak suggested that Molina will spend time as a uniformed member of the Cardinals dugout this coming season, though that won’t be his full-time role. While Molina will spend time with the club’s minor league affiliates his main focus will be working with the big league club’s players and coaching staff.
The news comes after a lengthy period of speculation earlier this offseason that Molina would be returning to St. Louis in some capacity, including suggestions that Molina could join manager Oliver Marmol’s coaching staff as bench coach. The #2 job in the dugout eventually went to former Cardinals infielder Daniel Descalso, leading Molina to rejoin the Cardinals in his current role. Molina has been candid in recent years about his hopes of becoming a big league manager at some point, and his return to the Cardinals organization just one year after his retirement from playing is sure to spur speculation regarding the future of Marmol, who the team has not engaged in extension talks with prior to the final year of his current contract.
Looking beyond the club’s reunion with Molina, the club’s willingness to move outfielder Tyler O’Neill has been well-documented this offseason, with Mozeliak previously indicating that the club hopes to bolster its bullpen in return for O’Neill’s services. Ben Fredrickson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggested in a live chat with readers yesterday that the Royals are among the teams with interest in O’Neill this offseason. While it might register as a surprise that the Royals would be interested in a rental player coming off a 101-loss season in 2023, the club’s outfielders slashed a pathetic .229/.293/.392 last season, leaving them with an 82 wRC+ that registered as the worst among all major league clubs.
Given that dearth of production, the Royals are perhaps better situated than most clubs to roll the dice on O’Neill, a 28-year-old slugger who flashed elite power and defense during a 2021 campaign that saw him slash .286/.352/.560 in 537 trips to the plate while finishing in the top ten of NL MVP voting. Unfortunately for both O’Neill and the Cardinals, things have taken a turn for the worse since then. Injuries and under-performance have plagued O’Neill the past two seasons, as the slugger has slashed a mediocre .229/.310/.397 (98 wRC+) in just 168 games over the past two seasons.
O’Neill is something of an odd trade candidate thanks to his combination of youth, upside, limited team control and recent struggles. It’s easy to see why Kansas City may be particularly interested in his services, however. O’Neill could be offered consistent playing time on the lowly Royals next season, with Kansas City able to offer the struggling slugger plenty of runway to re-establish himself as a quality bat. If O’Neill is successful in doing so, he could be a valuable asset for the club to flip at the trade deadline next summer in the event the Royals find themselves out of the race by midseason.
O’Neill isn’t the only Cardinals outfielder who could be on the trade block this offseason, as Mozeliak spoke to reporters (including John Denton of MLB.com) about the future of young outfielder Alec Burleson, who has reportedly drawn trade interest in recent days. Mozeliak seemed to be more reluctant to part with Burleson than O’Neill, saying that the club “definitely like[s]” Burleson and that they “think there’s a spot for him” on the club’s 2024 roster. That said, Mozeliak acknowledged the fact that regular playing time is unlikely to be available for Burleson as things currently stand, noting that “something else might have to happen first” in order for Burleson to get everyday at bats next season. Burleson struggled in 347 trips to the plate last season with a tepid slash line of just .244/.300/.390, but the 25-year-old youngster isn’t far removed from his days as a top-100 prospect in the sport.