Yadier Molina has to decide how he wants his career with the Cardinals to end. Is he willing to share the catching duties with Carson Kelly?. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI) 

By Rob Rains

All of the conversation about whether the Cardinals should extend Yadier Molina's contract beyond this season really comes down to one question, which only Molina can answer.

Is he willing to share the catching duties with Carson Kelly?

If the answer is yes, then the Cardinals should tear up the final year of his current contract, which includes a mutual option for 2018, and give Molina a new three-year deal through 2019.

If not, however, and as hard as it might be for Cardinal fans to accept, they need to let him leave after this season.

The Cardinals’ ownership group, led by Bill DeWitt Jr., and team management, led by John Mozeliak, has been very good in the past about letting their heads come before their hearts in making tough decisions about veteran players.

They did it last fall with Matt Holliday, and they should do it again with Molina.

The decision has very little to do about money; the Cardinals could afford to pay Molina whatever he wants. It has everything to do with Molina’s age – he will be 35 on July 13 – and the fact that they have a young catcher, Kelly, who is virtually ready to become an everyday catcher, and a good one, in the major leagues.

One of the realities of baseball is that stars get old; one former manager said years ago that one of the hardest aspects of his job was trying to manage a star player approaching the end of his career.

If that star player is willing to accept the transition gracefully, it makes everybody’s job a lot easier. Want an example? Think back 13 years, to the 2004 Cardinals.

Mike Matheny was 33. He was headed to his second of three consecutive Gold Gloves behind the plate. The Cardinals also had a hot 21-year-old prospect on the rise, a kid named Yadier Molina.

Matheny saw how good Molina was; he had heard stories of this kid coming up from catching guru Dave Ricketts. He saw him in spring training. He knew Molina was going to take his job – Matheny caught 122 games that season, Molina caught 51.

Matheny was a professional about the situation; he understood Molina was ready, and the reasons why the Cardinals needed to give him the starting job. But he still wanted to play. Matheny moved on to San Francisco, where he won the Gold Glove in 2005 before concussions brought a premature end to his playing career.

The same situation could be on the horizon for Molina and Kelly. There will be a transition and a transfer of power, and the best solution for the Cardinals would be for Molina to gracefully accept it and have Kelly ascend to the starting job over the next couple of seasons.

Molina could retire as a Cardinal in 2019. He could help with Kelly’s ascension, still getting to play some, and further establishing his spot on the Mount Rushmore of Cardinals’ greats.

The opposite scenario, however, is if Molina still wants to be the number one catcher and objects to watching Kelly take over the bulk of the catching duties in 2018 and 2019. That would force the Cardinals ownership and management to make a decision about who they would rather have catch the majority of their games for the next couple of seasons.

If Molina wants to be that guy, then this likely will be his final season with the Cardinals.

Molina could well have a couple of more good years ahead of him. He is motivated this year to win back the Gold Glove which he lost to Buster Posey last year. Catchers have won the fielding award when they were older – Bob Boone won one in 1989 at the age of 41 – but it doesn’t happen very often.

Catching is the most physically and mentally demanding position in the game. The Cardinals, because of Matheny’s personal experience, place a lot of demands on their catchers. Molina has learned from Ricketts and Matheny and has become the best catcher in the game.

It’s time to begin the transition to the next generation, however. There was a sign earlier this week that the Cardinals are thinking along these lines when Matheny gave the coveted opening night assignment to Carlos Martinez instead of remaining loyal to Adam Wainwright.

This transition is easier because of the position Martinez and Wainwright play. They are two of five starting pitchers. Each is going to start close to 35 games during the season, but the opening night assignment is symbolic. The torch of who is the number one starter on the Cardinals has been passed from Wainwright to Martinez.

Molina is still the Cardinals’ best catcher – for now – but the transition needs to begin. By the middle of this season, Kelly needs to be in the major leagues, watching and learning from Molina, and yes, getting prepared to take his job.

Molina has been great for the past several springs about working with the organization’s young catchers, advising them, watching them, helping them improve before they went off to play for one minor league team or another.

He also has been a valuable resource for all of the Cardinals’ young Latin players, no matter what position they play. He has helped a maturing Martinez, and even youngsters still in the minors have benefitted from spending time around Molina during the spring.

There is no reason that has to stop. Molina doesn’t have to catch every day to be the leader of this team, to still be the one counted on for advice and counsel. He can be that older brother who can help solve a problem before it reaches the higher levels of the organization.

Molina has been one of the greatest players in Cardinals’ history. He deserves to have a statue outside Busch Stadium. He will be an automatic selection for the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame the first year he is eligible. He could very well wind up in Cooperstown someday. Nobody should ever wear his Cardinals jersey number 4 again.

He does not have to retire as a Cardinal for any of that to happen, but it would be nice. Will it happen? The only person who can answer that is Molina.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains