September will bring Cardinals lots of appealing lineup options

Dark clouds on the horizon? That hardly seems likely with Yadier Molina expected to return to the St. Louis lineup before long.

Jeff Curry/Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — If Mike Matheny thought filling out the Cardinals’ lineup card was tricky in July, wait until September. With two injured stars nearing their returns and a bunch of September call-ups on deck, Matheny figures to have more options than a five-star recruit choosing a college.

The St. Louis manager isn’t about to complain, either. With the Cardinals pushing for a fourth straight trip to the postseason, Matheny said last week he welcomes all the help he can get.

"It’s going to take everything we’ve got," he said. "Most of it is about (who) can come here and help because we plan on making a strong run."

That help could come at all positions and make a huge difference. Look at some of the possibilities:

HOW ABOUT RETURNING A SUPERSTAR AT THE MOST IMPORTANT POSITION ON THE FIELD?

All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, who could be back from a torn ligament in his right thumb by this time next week, would do just that. As a bonus, he should be well rested after two months of not catching. The past couple of years, Molina has done his best hitting in the first half before he wears down. Molina is not expected to need long to return to top form. He has treated his rehab time as conditioning time and he is such a gifted player that he isn’t likely to need more than a few games to regain his timing at the plate.

While the Cardinals have gone five games over .500 without Molina, they miss him on both sides of the ball, but particularly on defense. Opponents have run with far greater success without him and the staff ERA has gone up since he went out, too. Opponents stole 24 of 42 attempts in 93 games before Molina’s injury, compared with 22 of 25 in 37 games since. The staff ERA with Molina was 3.31; without him, it’s been 4.46.

Molina’s return also would improve the Cardinals’ pinch-hitting situation which, until lately, had been a weakness. A.J. Pierzynski is the type of hitter who can thrive in late-game situations. Like any successful pinch-hitter, he knows what to do when pitched a strike and, after 17 seasons in the majors, no moment would be too big for him. When Pierzynski starts behind the plate, Molina would make a nice late-inning option when the team needs a big hit.

MORE ON THE CARDINALS

HOW ABOUT RETURNING A STARTING PITCHER WHO WAS AS GOOD AS ANY PITCHER IN THE GAME LAST OCTOBER?

Michael Wacha likely would need a few weeks to get back to such a level, but if he continues to progress, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be on top of his game by the end of the month. His return would crowd the rotation, but unless Justin Masterson turns around in a hurry, any decision on who might be left out would seem to be pretty obvious.

If Wacha isn’t ready to help the Cardinals reach the playoffs, think about the difference he could make in October. A foursome of Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, John Lackey and Wacha would be as formidable as any quartet the Nationals or Dodgers could field.

HOW ABOUT A NEEDED POWER BAT FOR THE BENCH?

Outfielder Randal Grichuk, the organization’s leading home run hitter this year, is already on the way to rejoining the Cardinals after Monday night’s shoulder injury to Shane Robinson, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list. Though Grichuk has struggled in two previous call-ups, the third time could be the charm. First baseman Xavier Scruggs enjoyed a strong stretch in August for Memphis and could give Matheny another right-handed option with power.

TALK ABOUT A FORTIFIED PITCHING STAFF

Kevin Siegrist and Jason Motte would add depth to a bullpen that was plenty busy over the weekend, and Marco Gonzales and Tim Cooney could start or work out of the bullpen. Other call-up possibilities include Jorge Rondon, Eric Fornataro, David Aardsma and Lee Stoppelman. At any rate, Matheny should have plenty of relievers to call on in the closing weeks.

THE BENCH WILL BE LONGER, TOO

Pete Kozma and Greg Garcia both figure to spend much of September with the Cardinals, which would give Matheny a couple of capable pinch-runners and infield defenders.


Kozma, like the rest of the Redbirds, might not arrive on Sept. 1 if Memphis qualifies for the Pacific Coast League playoffs. The Redbirds own a one-game lead in their division with six games to go.

How Memphis’ playoff situation would impact the call-ups would make for an interesting dilemma. Matheny made it clear last week that the No. 1 goal of the minors is to help the big-league club anyway it can, even at the expense of winning.

Because players such as Kozma, Scruggs and Stephen Piscotty would not be in line for much playing time in St. Louis, it would be a surprise if they didn’t stick with the Redbirds for the playoffs. Same with starters such as Gonzales and Cooney.

No matter when the reinforcements arrive, given all the possibilities with returning stars and emerging farmhands, Matheny should have more lineup and pitching decisions to make than he’s had all season. Considering what they could bring, he will welcome the challenge.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.