Pains & gains: These injuries hurt, but one team is built to survive
JUL 11, 2014 11:00a ET
Thursday was a rough day for baseball on the injury front. For Cincinnati, Brandon Phillips was diagnosed with a thumb injury that'll knock him out a month and a half. For New York, Masahiro Tanaka was diagnosed with an elbow injury that'll knock him out at least a month and a half. And for St. Louis, Yadier Molina was diagnosed with a thumb injury that'll knock him out for 8 to 12 weeks. All of these teams, of course, are trying to make the playoffs, and all of these players, of course, are important.
The commonality: significant injuries. Upon deeper investigation, though, the injuries have different meanings. The Reds should be able to survive without Phillips, who's no longer a star. The Yankees could be devastated without Tanaka, who's all but irreplaceable and who might still eventually need Tommy John surgery. And the Cardinals should be able to survive without Molina, even though he is still a star, unlike Phillips. Other than Adam Wainwright, Molina's the most valuable player on that ballclub, but even still, the Cardinals aren't in a terrible situation.
We can do this quickly. The Cardinals have 69 remaining regular-season baseball games, plus one they already played without Molina Thursday. For almost all of those, they were given a downgrade from Molina/Tony Cruz to Cruz/Audry Perez. You've probably never heard of Audry Perez, and for all I know you may know very little about Tony Cruz as well. Obviously, having Yadier Molina has meant the Cardinals haven't had to give many opportunities to other backstops. Now, in terms of talent, Cruz might be a little step above replacement-level. Perez we can consider to be precisely replacement-level. Molina would've projected for roughly two wins above replacement (WAR) down the stretch, and while I'll grant catchers are difficult to evaluate with perfect accuracy, this should be in the ballpark. So, a quick estimate of the cost of this injury to the Cardinals: two wins, give or take some runs. It's worst if Molina misses a full 12 weeks. It's quite a bit better if he can return in eight.
Two wins over less than half of a season is a big deal. The Cardinals are involved in a pair of tight races, and this is what happens when you go from a star to a scrub overnight. But there are some other considerations. For one, at this point it looks like Molina should be okay in the event the Cardinals make the playoffs. And for two, the remaining Cardinals might still be the best team in the NL Central.
Losing to the Pirates on Thursday didn't help. But then, the Brewers and Reds also lost, and the Cardinals sit just two back of first place. This is when it becomes handy to look at statistical projections on a team scale. According to FanGraphs projections, the Cardinals still look like the strongest team in the division. Projecting with data from the season to date, the Cardinals still look stronger than the Brewers. Baseball Prospectus also likes the Cardinals, so there's a lot of agreement here. St. Louis is worse off, no doubt, but two wins aren't 20 wins, and it's not like they're up against the A's and the Angels.
Right now it's at least a statistical coin flip that the Cardinals see the postseason. And another thing to remember: Teams aren't locked in to their current rosters, and the Cardinals appear especially positioned to make some significant trades if they so desire. They're most certainly better positioned than the Brewers and Reds, and the Pirates aren't likely to cash in the future.
Suddenly, the Cardinals have a temporary hole behind the plate. There aren't a lot of good options to patch it up, and the Cardinals presumably aren't interested in acquiring a player who's under contract beyond 2014. The Red Sox just dropped A.J. Pierzynski, but he's not going to be on the Cardinals' radar. The Mariners just dropped John Buck, but he might not be any better than Audry Perez. There are, though, some somewhat interesting trade candidates. If St. Louis wanted a role player, it might be able to pick up Robinson Chirinos from the Rangers, with Geovany Soto coming back. More ambitiously, it's conceivable the Cardinals could try to land Jose Molina from the Rays, even though he's under contract in 2015. He's a defensive specialist who could take care of the pitching staff. And then there's David Ross. If the Red Sox are going to sell, Ross is a 37-year-old due to hit free agency. He hasn't hit well for a couple years, but he provides leadership and defense that might appeal to the Cardinals the rest of the way.
If the Cardinals were to land Molina or Ross, the new guy could split time with Cruz until the other Molina returned. The team would miss Yadier's bat, but elements of the defense would be shored up. The pitchers, probably, would be comfortable with the new catcher, and then the situation would lend itself to October flexibility if the Cardinals were to advance.
And there's so much more the Cardinals could do, beyond finding a short-term replacement for Yadier Molina. The biggest possible splash would be targeting both David Price and Ben Zobrist to shore up weaknesses in the rotation and the infield. The Cardinals have the pieces to make it happen, and they have what might be considered a shorter-term window, and with Price and Zobrist, the Cardinals would inarguably be one of the best teams in the National League. Certainly, Price would pair well with Wainwright in a given playoff series.
If the Cardinals didn't want to make that kind of investment, they could still improve by aiming a little lower. They've already been heavily connected to Jake Peavy, who might improve in his original league. Perhaps they could pry Ian Kennedy away from the Padres, even though he has another remaining year of control. And if the Cardinals wanted to step up from Kolten Wong, they might be able to figure out a way to get Luis Valbuena from the Cubs. The A's tried to get him included in their own blockbuster, and while that didn't materialize, Valbuena is at least not unavailable.
The big splash could turn the Cardinals into pennant favorites. Smaller moves could turn them into stronger division favorites. Even without Yadier Molina, they remain in a good-enough place to justify trade-deadline activity, and it helps that Joe Kelly is just about back. There's some mystery around what's going on with Michael Wacha, but the Cardinals know best, and if he's able to return in a handful of weeks, then the Cardinals will remain a team that's favored more often than it isn't.
There is some information that we lack on the outside. We don't know how the Cardinals really feel about Wacha making a contribution in 2014. We don't know if Allen Craig is slumping or quickly declining. We don't know if there's any saving Shelby Miller's awful strikeout and walk numbers. There are pessimistic ways to view this roster, and if you're pessimistic enough, maybe the Cardinals seem like even just the fourth-best team in their own division. Maybe they seem like too much of a long shot to work to improve.
But this can be salvaged, if not made better. The Cardinals are about as good as any other team they're competing against, and they have the resources to step up in the coming three weeks. It's worthwhile for them to try to go for it, and if it were to work out, they'd receive a dual reward. For one thing, they'd get back to October. For another thing, they'd have Yadier Molina again. There's some sunshine behind those clouds.