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Yadier Molina, a free agent for the first, returns to St. Louis for an 18th season. “Obviously free agency is a process. It’s a slow process. You understand that. But in my mind, St. Louis was my first choice,” said Molina. Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Yadier Molina enjoyed going through the process of free agency for the first time in more than two decades as a pro.

He was even happier that he wound up returning to the Cardinals.

The 38-year-old catcher signed a $9 million contract for the upcoming season Tuesday, ensuring the nine-time Gold Glove winner would remain with the only organization for which he’s played for an 18th season.

“I have a bunch of stuff going on here in Puerto Rico with my basketball team. I’m playing winter ball. But it was fun – fun to be part of the free-agent process,” Molina said, “but in my mind, it was always St. Louis. We did everything we could to get the deal done and I’m happy to be back here again.”

Molina hit .262 with four home runs in 42 games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, his last under a $60 million, three-year deal. Molina ended up making a prorated $7,407,407 of his $20 million salary last year, sending him into his first offseason on the open market since the Cardinals drafted him in 2000.

He received interest from several other clubs, but none of them had the sentimental pull of St. Louis.

“The city, the franchise, the teammates, the coaching staff – all those players, they wanted me back,” Molina said, “and I wanted to be back here. Obviously free agency is a process. It’s a slow process. You understand that. But in my mind, St. Louis was my first choice.”

METS: Infielder Jonathan Villar has agreed to a $3.55 million, one-year contract with the New York Mets, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press.

Villar, who turns 30 on May 2, adds infield depth behind new shortstop Francisco Lindor and second baseman Jeff McNeil. Villar split last season between Miami and Toronto, which acquired him in a trade at the Aug. 31 trade deadline. He batted .232 with two homers and 15 RBI in 185 at-bats, and he earned about $3 million prorated from an $8.2 million salary.

During eight major league seasons that included stints with Houston (2013-15), Milwaukee (2016-18) and Baltimore (2018-19), Villar has a .259 average with 80 homers and 283 RBI. Primarily a middle infielder, he also has played third base but not since 2016. He has 15 big league outfield appearances.

New York also has a pending $1.25 million, one-year deal with Albert Almora, who figures to be a backup outfielder.

REDS: Left-hander Sean Doolittle and Cincinnati finalized a $1.5 million, one-year contract that allowed him to earn an additional $2.1 million in performance bonuses.

Cincinnati also announced a minor league deal with infielder Dee Strange-Gordon, who will report to big league spring training.

Doolittle, 34, had been with Washington since July 2017 and helped the Nationals win their first World Series title in 2019.

He can earn $1.6 million in bonuses for games pitched: $100,000 each for 10 and every additional four through 34, $125,000 apiece for 38, 42, 46 and 50, and $200,000 each for 55 and 60. He also can earn $500,000 for games finished: $100,000 each for 20 and every additional five through 40.

The two-time All-Star was 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA in 7 2/3 innings over 11 relief appearances during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He earned $2,407,407 in prorated pay from a $6.5 million salary last year in the second option year of a contract that originally guaranteed $10.5 million from 2014-18.

Strange-Gordon, 32, spent the past three seasons with Seattle and hit .200 with three RBI in 75 at-bats over 33 games last year. A three-time stolen base champion, he swiped just three in five tries. Strange-Gordon became a free agent when Seattle chose to pay a $1 million buyout rather than exercise a $14 million option for 2021.

UMPIRE RETIRES: After more than three decades of hard work as a big league umpire, Mike Winters is ready to loaf. Consider it a retirement benefit, in fact.

“I’ve had time to take a cooking class and I’ve been baking sourdough bread,” he said over the weekend. “I’ve made a couple of loaves so far. They’re not perfect yet. A bit of a doorstop. But I’m getting there.”

One of 12 umps to opt out during the pandemic-shortened season, the 62-year-old Winters has made it official. He’s off to other endeavors, be it visiting the Far East, checking out the Westminster dog show or polishing his culinary skills.

A full plate on deck. And an impressive ledger in the books – 3,810 games in the regular season over 32 years, plus four World Series assignments and four All-Star Games.

TRADE DETAILS: The Texas Rangers will pay Oakland $6.25 million this year and $7.25 million in 2022 as part of the trade that sent shortstop Elvis Andrus to the Athletics.

Texas will make 12 payments of $520,833.33 from April through September as part of Saturday’s deal. The Rangers will make 12 payments of $604,166.67 from April through September in 2022. Payments are due roughly in the middle of each month and on or close to the final day of each month.

Andrus is owed $14 million in each of the next two seasons. The $120 million, eight-year contract he signed in 2015 includes a $15 million option for 2023 that now, because of the trade, becomes a player option if he has 550 plate appearances in 2022, or 1,100 combined in 2021-22.

Texas sent the 32-year-old Andrus and catcher Aramis Garcia to the A’s for designated hitter Khris Davis, catcher Jonah Heim and right-hander Dane Acker.

MARLINS: Outfielder Adam Duvall, who played for the Sanford Mainers in 2009, agreed to terms on a one-year contract with Miami.

At 32, Duvall will provide power and a veteran bat to a team that is expected to rely heavily on developing youngsters. Duvall hit 16 home runs last year for Atlanta, which would have led the Marlins.

ASTROS: Right-hander Steve Cishek agreed to a minor league contract with Houston and has been invited to big league spring training.

The side-arm-throwing, sinkerballing reliever has a 2.78 ERA with 132 saves in 594 appearances over 11 major league seasons.

The 34-year-old spent last season with the Chicago White Sox where he appeared in 22 games and had a 5.40 ERA. He spent the previous two seasons with the Chicago Cubs, making 150 appearances with 11 saves and a 2.55 ERA.

Cishek played for the Marlins from 2010 until he was traded to the Cardinals in July 2015. His best seasons came with the Marlins when he had 34 saves in 2013 and a career-high 39 saves the following year.

ARBITRATION: Ryan Yarbrough and AL champion Tampa Bay went to a salary arbitration hearing, with the pitcher asking for a raise from $578,500 to $3.1 million and the team arguing for $2.3 million.

The case was heard over Zoom by arbitrators Allen Ponak, Mark Burstein and Jules Bloch.

A 29-year-old left-hander, Yarbrough was 1-4 with a 3.56 ERA in nine starts and two relief appearances, striking out 44 and walking 12 in 55 2/3 innings.

He was 1-0 with a 3.68 ERA in two postseason starts and five relief appearances, helping the Rays reach the World Series, where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Yarbrough was eligible for arbitration for the first time.

Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi won his hearing last week, and New York Mets third baseman and outfielder J.D. Davis, and Baltimore outfielder Anthony Santander lost.

Decisions remains pending for Yarbrough and St. Louis pitcher Jack Flaherty.

Six players remain scheduled for hearings: Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes and pitcher Walker Buehler; Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ; San Francisco second baseman Donovan Solano; and Atlanta pitcher Mike Sorotka and shortstop Dansby Swanson.


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