Cardinals prepare for life without Yadi, perhaps baseball's most irreplaceable player
Of all the losses suffered by NL Central teams -- Joey Votto, Gerrit Cole and Ryan Braun among them -- none matches St. Louis being without Yadier Molina for the next two to three months. Welcome to the spotlight, Tony Cruz.
Little did Tony Cruz know in spring training he'd be more than just a day-game-after-night-game replacement for Yadier Molina this season.
Steve Mitchell / USA TODAY Sports
By Stan McNeal
ST. LOUIS -- The Reds' best player, Joey Votto, is out indefinitely. Pirates ace Gerrit Cole just returned to the disabled list one start after coming off of it. Brewers slugger Ryan Braun has been in and out of the lineup with a sore back.
But no team in the NL Central will be dealing with a more devastating injury than the Cardinals, who just lost arguably the most irreplaceable player in the game. Yadier Molina, their six-time All-Star catcher, will undergo surgery for a torn ligament in his right thumb and is expected to miss eight to 12 weeks.
"I almost cried," Molina said Thursday afternoon when he first learned that he could be sidelined the rest of the season.
He probably wasn't the only one. Molina is widely regarded as the game's top catcher at handling pitchers, blocking balls in the dirt, throwing out would-be basestealers and framing pitches. And, oh yeah, he has a .300 batting average since 2010.
"It's unfortunate when you lose a player of his skill set and leadership," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "It's tough. But the game doesn't stop and we'll keep going."
Tony Cruz, who filled in for two weeks last season when Molina went on the disabled list with a sore knee, was in the starting lineup Thursday night and is expected to handle most of the catching duties. The club also called up Audry Perez from Class AAA Memphis as Cruz's backup. A 25-year-old from the Dominican Republic, Perez was hitting .288 for the Redbirds.
Cruz, in his fourth season as Molina's backup, is considered a solid defensive catcher with good receiving skills and a strong, accurate arm, according to a veteran scout. Offensively, the scout said Cruz has a long swing "with some holes in it." Cruz is hitting .255 in 51 at-bats this season.
"When he gets out there, we feel he gives us a chance to win," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We have faith in him, we have trust in him, now he just has to go out and continue to do what he has been doing."
Added Mozeliak: "He's had a great mentor. Learning from our manager and working under Yadi certainly should prepare him for this type of duty. We'll see what we have. I have a lot of confidence in him."
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Mozeliak said the club will consider bringing in additional catching help from the outside, most likely a veteran. He did not mention names, but A.J. Pierzynski and John Buck both have been designated for assignment this week and likely would be available. According to the scout, Buck is a better defender except that he is slow to release the ball when throwing out basestealers, while Pierzynski is the better offensive player.
Pierzynski also has a personality that often rubs opponents -- and occasionally, teammates -- the wrong way and might not be the best fit for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals know they will not be able to replace Molina -- "this is not even a logical question," Mozeliak said -- but will seek to keep the position afloat.
"You need to find a stopgap," Mozeliak said. "We have confidence in Cruz. That's why he is our backup. Now he's going to get an opportunity to play every day, but in the meantime we'll also look out and see if there is something that can help this club or help balance it out in the short term."
Molina suffered the injury when he slid into third while advancing from second on an infield grounder in the Cardinals' 5-2 victory over the Pirates on Wednesday night. As he slid into the base feet-first, he put his right hand down and the thumb got caught in the dirt. "It's almost like it stuck," Mozeliak said. Molina stayed in the game and caught half an inning before departing before his next turn to bat. He said when he picked up the bat, "I couldn't hold it."
Though frustrated to learn Thursday morning that the injury was more severe than the initial diagnosis of a sprained thumb, Molina was not that surprised.
"When I felt it right away, I knew it was something wrong with it," Molina said.
He is scheduled to undergo surgery in St. Louis on Friday morning. The ligament will need five weeks to heal before he starts his rehab, Molina said.
Even if Molina returns on the optimistic side of the two-to-three-month timetable, he will miss somewhere around 50 games. That's a lot of baseball to play without your MVP.
"We need to stay the course and realize the really good teams always have something that happens," Matheny said. "They have the opportunity to respond with pity or doubt, but the opposite side of that, they can bow their neck and say, 'OK, now watch what we do.' We don't want to see any of our guys go down, but now we have an opportunity to step up and do something special. That's the kind of group of guys we have."