It is not an exaggeration to include Yadier Molina among the few MLB players that are irreplaceable to their team. He is an offensive threat at a defense-first position, while maintaining his status as the best defensive catcher in baseball. However, the Cardinals are now searching for a way to overcome the loss of Molina for an extended period of time. As Molina slid into third base in a game against the Pirates on Thursday, he tore a ligament in his thumb. The injury will require surgery and a recovery time between 8-12 weeks, which would keep Molina out until at least Mid-September. Even in the midst of a down season offensively, Molina registered a 112 wRC+, while still providing his elite defense. The Cardinals have claimed George Kottaras off waivers from the Indians, and he will presumably serve as Cruz’s backup. While he is an improvement upon Audry Perez, who would have been the Cards backup, he is not the answer. There are no acquisitions that GM John Mozeliak can make that will replicate anywhere near Molina’s level of production. However, that should not keep Mozeliak from pursuing upgrades over their current catchers. He has previously said that the trade market is currently too expensive, but with this loss, he can no longer afford to wait for the offense to come around and Michael Wacha to rehab from a rare shoulder injury.
For now, the Cardinals shift backup catcher Tony Cruz to their everyday starter, with recently acquired George Kottaras serving the role as the club’s backup catcher. Cruz is certainly an adequate reserve catcher, but he is not a reliable option as a starter with far below average offensive production and average-to-slightly above average defense over the course of his career. For his career Cruz has slashed .236/.280/.323, leading to a career wRC+ of 67 (100 wRC+ is average). Defensively, Cruz has compiled negative 6 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). While it is certainly possible Cruz performs better with regular playing time, it is equally likely that he struggles even more as the league gets a better scouting report on him. There is also nothing in Cruz’s Minor League career to suggest that he will suddenly become a productive offensive player. Kottaras is a journeyman, who is known for his keen eye and impressive pop for a reserve catcher. He has slashed .216/.326/.415 for his career with a 101 wRC+. Kottaras’s defense is comparable to that of Tony Cruz, as he has negative 9 DRS across nearly 5 Major League seasons. The Cardinals may plan to use the left-handed-hitting Kottaras in a platoon with Cruz, who bats from the right side. However, for his career, Cruz has hit much better against RHPs than LHPs. For his part, Kottaras has a 106 wRC+ against RHP, which would fit with a platoon. These internal options will not leave the Cardinals with much room for error, especially since they sit 2 games back in the division and a 0.5 game back of the second Wild Card spot.
In order to push past the Brewers for the division or at least claim the second Wild Card spot, the Cardinals will need to add another catcher that can provide more offensive value than the three options mentioned above. The Cardinals were already struggling mightily offensively, even before Molina’s injury, so they cannot afford for too much fall-off from Molina’s production without receiving more production from other areas. However, there are few easy areas to improve, so the Cardinals have decided to wait for the offense to return to its form of the past two seasons. With this injury, they now have a position that they can upgrade through the trade market without displacing a key contributor, who is slumping. The trade market for catchers is lacking impact talent, but there are still upgrades available. One catcher that may fit the Cardinals’ needs is David Ross, who his known for great leadership of a pitching staff, but has also dominated LHP this season and for his career. He has struggled mightily this season with a 60 wRC+, but against LHP, Ross owns a wRC+ of 128 with a .855 OPS. The Red Sox will likely be sellers this season and with Ross an impending Free Agent, he should be available at a reasonable price, especially with his overall offensive production being so poor. If the Cardinals do acquire Ross, they could choose to keep either Cruz or Kottaras or both on the Big League club to serve in the platoon. If both are kept on the roster, the Cardinals would likely designate either Daniel Descalso or Mark Ellis for assignment and put Cruz’s versatility to use, as he can play 3rd. The best trade possibility for the Cardinals is Kurt Suzuki, but it is not clear whether the Twins will make him available or attempt to reach an extension with him. He is in the midst of a resurgent season offensively and would be the outright starter if acquired. Suzuki has a .759 OPS and a 114 wRC+, while also providing strong defense behind the plate, so far this season. Suzuki would likely require a strong prospect in order to convince the Twins to trade him rather than extend him. The Cardinals could likely deal from the deep pool of outfield prospects, with James Ramsey or Randal Grichuk and another lesser prospect possibly going to Minnesota in a deal. Suzuki is the best catcher available on the market and would come the closest to Molina’s production offensively and defensively.
The Cardinals will not use the loss of Molina as an excuse if they fall out of contention, nor should they, as every team deals with injuries. The other two teams chasing the Brewers for 1st place in the NL Central have dealt with similarly devastating injuries. The Reds have lost Joey Votto to the DL, only to have him return before he was fully healthy and have to go back on the DL. They also just lost Brandon Phillips to the same injury that Molina suffered. The Reds also dealt with injuries to their Closer, Aroldis Chapman, and key Starting Pitcher, Mat Latos, to begin the season. The Pirates have dealt with injuries to young flamethrower Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. The fact is every team has injuries, but the Cardinals are fortunate that this injury occurred with weeks remaining before the July 31st Trade Deadline, as they will have an opportunity to address their new need. The Cardinals may not like the price of the trade market, but they can no longer wait for the offense to recover, especially after losing a key contributor. This injury will hurt the Cardinals, there is not much doubt about that, but the club does have an opportunity to limit the damage by adding outside help. My approach would be to go aggressively after Kurt Suzuki, but resisting the urge to include an elite player, rather trying to trade from the Cardinals depth in the outfield and young pitchers. If the Twins rebuke them, they should then turn to the Red Sox regarding David Ross. If the Cardinals decide they are happy with adding George Kottaras, then they will need to receive better offensive production from other offensive positions, which has yet to happen.