The St. Louis Cardinals went 90-72 last season and made the playoffs for the 11th time in 15 years – and that was with Yadier Molina missing 50+ games, mostly due to a sprained thumb.
Molina, 32, was productive when he was in the lineup – he hit .282 with seven home runs, 38 RBIs and 21 doubles – but what if he misses significant time again this season? Could the Cardinals get by without him?
“Yadier Molina is a key piece with the St. Louis Cardinals, there’s no doubt about that,” legendary broadcaster and Cardinals TV analyst Tim McCarver said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “They suffered last year without him. They made due with their backup catching. Tony Cruz was the major backup catcher, but that’s one of the toughest jobs to fill in baseball. You can’t replace a Yadier Molina.”
Molina lost 15 pounds this offseason and showed up to spring training in excellent shape. Still, his 110 games played last year were his fewest since his rookie season, in 2004.
“It’s a very tenuous situation,” McCarver said. “If he goes down, that would hurt the Cardinals’ chances. Things aren’t (as certain) with the Cardinals this year going into the season as they have been in the last couple years. As Tiki knows, regardless of your sport, there are no guarantees.”
Adam Wainwright, for example, won 20 games and posted a 2.38 ERA last year, but he had elbow surgery in the offseason. Michael Wacha made just 19 starts in an injury-plagued season. Lance Lynn suffered a hip injury in spring training. Carlos Martinez is transitioning from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Even reliever Pat Neshek, who had a 1.87 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 67.1 innings last season, is now with Houston.
Thus, the Cardinals enter 2015 with a lot of question marks – many more than usual, at least.
“If there is one team that, in my view, that can run away with the National League Central, it’s Pittsburgh,” McCarver said. “Milwaukee led the National League Central for four-and-a-half months last year. The Cubs are much, much improved. The Cubs are going to be a fun team to watch over the next half decade or so with Joe Maddon (and) Jon Lester. Kris Bryant is having a remarkable spring. He already has six home runs.
“But the Cardinals are very competitive,” McCarver continued. Somehow they find a way with their farm system on a year-to-year basis to replace their players – and these guys are prepared not only physically, but mentally. It’s amazing. When they bring guys up, I’d say the Cardinals have not only a 40-man roster, but about 10 other players that feel as though they belong in the big leagues. It’s very competitive in their minor league system and that’s so important – when you have young players to come out to be competitive for positions.”
The Cardinals also signed Jason Heyward, 25, to improve an offense that ranked 23rd in both scoring and slugging percentage last season. Heyward hit 27 home runs for Atlanta in 2012 but combined for just 25 over the next two years.
“I think Jason Heyward will help them defensively in right field,” McCarver said. “It’s a matter of whether Jason can have an offensive year like he had his first year in the big leagues.”