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Cubs rookie catcher models play after Cards vet Molina

Cubs catcher WelingtCastillo warms up pitcher Travis Wood bullpen before Chicago Cubs host St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday May 7 2013

Cubs catcher Welington Castillo warms up pitcher Travis Wood in the bullpen before the Chicago Cubs host the St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday May 7, 2013 at Wrigley Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 9, 2013 6:42AM

Before last season, the St. Louis Cardinals refused to pay Albert Pujols what he wanted. As soon as he left via free agency, they spent $75 million to make sure Yadier Molina didn’t go anywhere.

“That tells you a lot,” Cubs veteran catcher Dioner Navarro said.

So did the Cardinals’ surprising return trip to the postseason last October without Pujols. So does the Cardinals’ best-in-the-majors pitching staff they brought to Wrigley Field on Tuesday for the start of a two-game series against the Cubs.

“He’s invaluable,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a four-time Gold Glove catcher, said of Molina, his five-time Gold Glove catcher. “He goes about the game as perfectly as you could ask anybody to go about it. And I’m a pretty hard judge of catchers. I’ve never seen anybody play the position to the level that he does.”

By now, anybody following the Cubs since Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over the baseball department knows the St. Louis organization is one of the player-development role models for the new front office.

And perhaps no single player on the other side of the field this week is a more immediate, specific role model for what’s going on with the Cubs’ reconstruction than Molina.

What Pujols was to hitting for the past decade, Molina is to the most important every-day position on the field.

That’s why the Cubs gave video of Molina to young catcher Welington Castillo to study in spring training as he prepared for his first full season in the big leagues. It’s why Castillo takes to heart comparisons to the Cards catcher coaches have shared with him in recent years.

And it’s why Castillo’s development is every bit as important — maybe more important — to the Cubs’ success in this rebuilding plan as Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.

Castillo, who has the arm and athleticism, knows.

“And it’s not just him,” said Castillo, who called another gem for Travis Wood in the Cubs’ 2-1 victory Tuesday night. “We’ve got to be like them and better than them someday.

“Catcher is the head of the team. Every pitch matters to the catcher; every play matters. If you’re driving a car and you lose the control, you’re going to get in an accident. That’s the way I take catching.”

All three times the Cardinals have been to the World Series in the last 25 years, it was with Molina behind the plate. The only time in the last three years the San Francisco Giants didn’t win the World Series was the year All-Star catcher Buster Posey was injured (2011).

The great Yankees dynasties coincided with a long line of great catchers: Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.

And even the last time the Cubs were in the playoffs, they did it with Geovany Soto, who made the All-Star team and was Rookie of the Year.

“He’s the one guy quarterbacking the whole field,” Matheny said. “He sets the tone and the tempo and the attitude of the whole field.”

And if Castillo can be that kind of guy for this team? If he can somehow fulfill a fraction of the comparisons his coaches have used to inspire him, it could be the start of something for the Cubs.

“The things I’m talking about aren’t how you block the ball and how you throw to second base,” Matheny said.

It’s things like how fast Castillo can learn from youth-related mistakes, as on Thursday when he surrendered an easy run by jogging after a passed ball — then blamed himself for the loss and promised it wouldn’t happen again.

“I love the competition,” he said of taking the same field as Molina. “I love to see him do things — and try to do better than him.”

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