The two big questions about the contract:
1. Is Molina worth $15 million per season?
2. What is the risk for a catcher who has played a lot of games at any early age?
Let's tackle the second question first.
I looked at the catchers who have played the most games since 1970 through their age-28 seasons (the one Molina just completed) and then checked their performance over their next six seasons (covering the final season of Molina's current contract plus the next five years). Molina has averaged 137 games caught the past three seasons and had four seasons prior to that where he caught at least 107 games. So we're trying to come up with a list of catchers who did a lot of squatting behind the plate at an early age to see if the wear and tear affected them as they hit their 30s.
The chart lists the player's OPS through age 28, his OPS from ages 29 through 34 and his total games played from 29 to 34 (at catcher or elsewhere).
Ted Simmons was a DH by age 34 and Johnny Bench had moved to primarily third base. Butch Wynegar broke down. The others held up and produced to varying degrees. You never know, of course, but I don't think the Cardinals extended Molina too far into his 30s. He's such a good defensive catcher that even if he declines with the bat he should be able to hold a starting position.
And there's the rub: Molina hit a career-best .305/.349/.465 in 2011, an OPS 43 points higher than his 2010 figure. With 14 home runs, he cracked double digits for the first time, and also rapped a career-high 32 doubles. The $15 million annual figure would make Molina the second-highest paid catcher in the majors, behind Joe Mauer. FanGraphs rated Molina the fourth-best catcher in 2011 (behind Mike Napoli, Matt Wieters and Alex Avila) and Baseball-Reference.com ranked him fifth (also behind Miguel Montero).
So if he produces like he did in 2011, Molina should justify the contract when you also consider his popularity in St. Louis (he received the loudest ovations of any Cardinals player during the World Series) and what he means to the franchise in the absence of Albert Pujols. If he reverts back to being a durable .290/.350/.390 hitter with superb defense, the Cardinals will have slightly overpaid but not drastically so.