Many St. Louis Cardinals observers would agree that catcher Yadier Molina is the most indispensable member of his team’s roster, considering his offensive and defensive contributions.
When Molina went down with a thumb injury last July 9th, the club showed little confidence in reserve catcher Tony Cruz, first bringing in journeyman George Kottaras, followed by 37-year-old former all-star A.J. Pierzynski.
I don’t blame the Cardinals. In fact, I applauded the reaction. Yet, let’s not forget that it was a reaction.
The club may be facing a similar problem in 2015. With Pierzynski gone to Atlanta as a free agent, the course seems consistent with last year's – hoping Molina does not get hurt. Instead of adding a proven Major League catcher, the Cardinals look to be banking on quantity over quality.
Plenty of Options, but None are Proven
Since the end of last season, the organization has added and or promoted five catchers at the upper levels of the system, yet the five have an aggregate total of zero career Major League at-bats.
To keep Ed Easley from minor league free agency, the Cardinals added the 29-year-old Memphian to the 40-man roster. To keep Cody Stanley, 26, from being exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, Springfield’s regular catcher the last two seasons was also awarded a 40-man spot. Both moves occurred in November.
From the outside, just last week, the Cardinals added a once-hot Baltimore catching prospect in Michael Ohlman. The 24-year-old, known more for his hitting than defense, had a rough Double-A introduction in 2014 and did not require the Cards to give up a player in trade. Ohlman was acquired for cash considerations only, but requires the use of a 40-man roster spot.
Finally, the organization signed two minor league free agent catchers, both with strong defensive pedigrees, but with questionable bats. It would be difficult to envision either Alberto Rosario (age 28) or Jose Gonzalez (age 27) being able to help St. Louis. Instead, the two seem to have been added to provide catching depth options at the higher levels of the system.
Perhaps one or more of the five could cover for Cruz, but replacing Molina seems out of the question.
Cruz is the Answer on Paper Only
The Cardinals again appear to be satisfied with Cruz as their Major League back up, having given the arbitration-eligible backstop a one-year contract at just $775,000. However, 2014 showed us that the club’s confidence in Cruz as the starter is lacking should the 32-year-old Molina go down again in 2015.
It is easy to see why.
The career batting average of the 28-year-old is .225 in just under 500 plate appearances over four seasons. Worse, Cruz' average has dropped each year to a new low at The Mendoza Line, .200, last season. That occurred with him getting slightly more work in 2014 than any of his other prior three seasons. Cruz’ always-negative bWAR has sunk lower each season as well to a career-worst -1.0 in 2014.
Yet having Cruz return as Molina’s second-string is again the plan for 2015. Cardinals officials have been quoted as saying that the free agent candidates they targeted did not want the job due to the prospect of low playing time.
I see where they are coming from, but let’s look at why.
Molina’s Heavy Workload
Molina was worked long and hard last season. As of his July 9 injury, he had played in just over 90 percent of the Cardinals games, 83 of 92. That had him on pace for a career high of 146 games, during his age 31/32 season.
To help put that into perspective, only three MLB catchers played in over 140 games in 2014. Their ages are 28, 24 and 27, respectively. Molina had set his career high of 140 five years earlier, at age 26.
Of his first 83 games played last season, Molina started 82. He had caught seven full extra-inning games of 11 or 12 innings each to the point he was injured.
Molina had been removed early from a game just seven times, for an average of just four outs. Some of this may have been due to the shaky offense. Perhaps with bigger leads, manager Mike Matheny would have pulled Molina from games earlier/more often. Then again, maybe not.
It was not a one-time occurrence.
Though Molina appeared in “just” 136 games in 2013, the only reason he did not set a new personal games-played record then was a knee injury that put him on the disabled list for 15 days/14 games in the first half of August. Overall, Molina still had a tremendous season offensively, results he did not approach in 2014.
This quick review of the numbers seems to confirm Molina was again subjected to a heavy workload in 2014 - at least up to the point he went down. There seems no reason to believe his high usage will be altered in 2015.
Where is Molina Heading?
One difference in 2015 is that Molina is a year older - already on the wrong side of 30.
Another is that he has reportedly lost 20 pounds. Putting aside the inevitable “Best Shape of His Life” stories undoubtedly coming later this month, realistically such a move could cut either way.
Will less weight translate to greater durability and better results or will he wear down over the grind of the long season? No matter how Molina’s 2015 campaign goes, you can bet his weight loss will be used by some as an excuse/justification.
In 2014, the Cards survived without Molina for nine weeks – but he did not rebound with the bat upon his return. His offensive struggles continued in the post-season (.227, 0 RBI) before another injury ended his year with the NLCS knotted at one game apiece. Without Molina behind the plate, San Francisco won the next three and St. Louis’ season was over.
I hope I don’t have to say ‘I told you so’ later on, but I may be as concerned about this as the rotation. At least the Cardinals appear to have viable options in house if one of the projected starting five cannot go.
Molina will not ask for more rest and there are no indications that Matheny will be more proactive in creating those opportunities in 2015. Getting to October again is going to be the team’s expectation, but wouldn’t having their all-world catcher closer to 100 percent in the post-season increase their odds of going all the way?
Clearly, all of the Cardinals’ catching eggs are again in Molina’s basket and I remain very concerned about that.
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