Before every Major League Baseball season, stories appear trying to identify the player who if injured would be the biggest loss to his team. For the St. Louis Cardinals in recent years, the answer is always the same.
Yadier Molina is not only widely recognized as the best catcher in the game, but also the best defensive player overall. As the makeup of his team’s pitching staff evolved in recent years to an even higher quotient of young players, products of the farm system, his importance as a stabilizing force increased.
An improving bat, which delivered three consecutive .300 seasons from 2011 to 2013, with each year better than the prior, and a career-best 44 doubles in 2013 had earned Molina a gradual move up in the lineup in recent years.
In his prior all-star seasons of 2009 through 2013, Molina was very durable, averaging just under 140 games played while often successfully resisting offers to be rested. As he crossed into the decade of his 30’s, Molina had put together arguably his best season in 2013. We named him our St. Louis Player of the Year over Matt Carpenter and others.
There was a brief scare that summer, however. Molina suffered a knee injury that ultimately caused him to miss just 14 games while the Cardinals steamed ahead to an impressive 97-win season before losing in the World Series.
Molina’s second injury in two summers was more severe, however. It occurred on July 9, 2014 when he suffered a torn thumb ligament on a slide into third base. The catcher remained out until August 29.
The club first called up Audry Perez from Triple-A as an emergency roster fill-in. Demonstrating a clear lack of confidence that long-time back up Tony Cruz could handle the every-day catching load, the club added, and quickly discarded veteran George Kottaras.
When a more accomplished but late in career option in A.J. Pierzynski became available, the Cardinals signed him to cover during Molina’s absence.
To the team’s credit, they did not fold.
When Molina was injured, the Cards were 49-42, three games behind Milwaukee in the National League Central Division. When he returned, the club was 71-61, 1.5 games out in the standings.
Going 22-19 was not earth-shattering, but it was better than many, myself included, expected. Most importantly, the Cardinals remained in the playoff hunt.
Upon his return, Molina was not himself offensively. Though he had five hits in his first three games back at the end of August, his results lagged in September. His line for the final month was just .250/.292/.307/.598 as he hit no home runs and plated just six.
Actually, it was comparable to his June, the month before his injury, when he posted a rough .210/.278/.309/.586 line with five runs batted in.
Still, the rock was behind the plate almost every day for the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs. In October, Molina continued to be a non-factor at the plate, batting just .238 (5-for-21) with no RBI against the Dodgers and Giants before suffering an oblique injury in Game 2 of the NLCS.
With the catcher out, the Cardinals lost the next three games to end their 2014 post-season run.
Molina will turn 33 years of age during the 2015 season. Having caught almost 1,400 Major League regular-season and playoff games over 11 years, he has already surpassed the career total of his one-time mentor and current manager. Mike Matheny logged just over 1,300 games behind the plate over his 13 seasons.
Heading into 2015, the Cardinals continue to tempt fate with the catching position. General Manager John Mozeliak was quoted during the Winter Meetings as saying that none of the veteran catchers the club approached want to come to St. Louis because of the limited playing time they would receive as Molina’s reserve.
Perhaps the Cardinals need to recognize where Molina is in his career and lessen their in-season usage of their most valuable asset going forward.
Otherwise, the club may again have to again scrounge the waiver wire for emergency catching help during the 2015 season – with no guarantee a stopgap as serviceable as Pierzynski would be available or that the team’s post-season hopes could again be kept afloat.
One thing remains clear – Molina is still the Cardinal the club can least afford to lose.
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