The Cardinals need their catcher.
If this was any other team, or any other catcher, perhaps things would be different.
In that alternate universe, the Cardinals would just be a team in need of a catcher.
But the Cardinals don’t need a catcher.
They need their catcher.
The Cardinals need Yadier Molina, and the clock is ticking.
The message at Busch Stadium on Friday as the Cardinals prepared to start their final homestand before the All-Star break was delivered with care and compassion. But if you were listening closely enough, it came through loud and clear.
Time for Molina to return from Puerto Rico. Time for Molina to be back in the clubhouse and dugout with teammates he helps with his presence and expertise. Time for Molina to be back behind the plate, helping a pitching staff that has taken a dive in performance since his absence, whether he is hitting well at the plate or not. Time for Molina to dig deep one more time, like he has so many times before.
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Molina doesn’t need to hear this from me.
He should hear what his teammates are saying as this waiting game nears an alarming territory.
“Definitely missed,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said.
“As soon as possible,” manager Oliver Marmol said when asked about when he wants the catcher back in his clubhouse and lineup. “I’d like him to be here, playing.”
And here was Adam Wainwright, Molina’s beloved batterymate, during an ESPN radio appearance this week.
“I’m ready for him to come back,” Wainwright said. “I think our whole team is. Because we miss his leadership, too. He leads by example. He’s got a quiet confidence about him. When he steps up there to play catcher, the other team sees him. They know they can’t steal. They know they can’t get a good secondary (lead), so that means they’re not going first to third. They know he’s going to block everything. He’s a game-changing guy.
“This is his final season, and I don’t want him to miss anything,” Wainwright continued. “I don’t want him to miss any of the time. We’ve got our whole lives to be retired. We are going to be former players a lot longer than we are going to be players. So, I just don’t want him to miss anything. We need him around. He helps so many people when he’s around. I don’t walk around sulking, don’t get me wrong. But I miss my friend, my teammate, and we miss his presence.”
Friday marked week three since the Cardinals placed the veteran backstop on the injured list because of the knee issues that have been plaguing him this season. It has become clearer since then that physical discomfort is not the only issue clouding this picture. Molina departed with team permission for what has become a lengthy stint at home in Puerto Rico carrying a heavy sense of frustration about his individual struggles during this sendoff season.
“He is continuing to work out,” Mozeliak said. “Certainly feeling a little better from where his knees were, but not quite cleared yet for full baseball activity. My hope is by this time next week we might have more encouraging news on that.”
Molina, 39, was candid upon his delayed arrival at spring training that he would be playing less often than usual this year. He was clear about needing to play himself into shape because of an unusual offseason marred by what were described as personal reasons.
Whatever wonders that swirled during his absence from camp, including some close to him wondering if he might not come back for 2022 at all, seemed to fade quickly upon his arrival and reunion with Albert Pujols, the former teammate Molina campaigned for the club to bring home.
Molina’s struggles, knee pain, treatment those knees have required and whatever continues to be left unsaid have muddied the waters considerably.
“I think he’s pretty close to coming back,” Pujols said. “He’s just getting healthy. He’s in a position that demands a lot. When your knee is battling you, it’s no fun getting behind the plate. I can understand for him, he needed a little break. Get healthy. We are not 21 anymore. So, hopefully he can come back fully healthy and help us win.”
Molina is hitting .213 with a .225 on-base percentage and a .294 slugging percentage, on pace for his lowest on-base plus slugging percentage of his 19-year career. The knee trouble has made it more challenging for him behind the plate. During one of his final at-bats before he was placed on the injured list, a groundout led to him slamming his helmet down in a visible sign of the frustration those around him have watched grow.
“This is an ultracompetitive guy that wants to win and compete, and when he feels like he’s not contributing, it takes a toll on you,” Marmol said. “This guy loves winning baseball games for the Cardinals. He lives for that. When he feels like he’s not doing that, there is a high level of frustration on his part.”
But here’s the unfortunate but true state of things at this time. Molina still is the Cardinals’ best option behind the plate in terms of calling pitches, framing pitches, coordinating the defense and helping stifle opponents’ baserunning.
Andrew Knizner has not grabbed the opportunity he waited patiently to seize. The rushed promotion of Ivan Herrera didn’t stick. With all due respect to Austin Romine, he’s not that guy. This has reached the point where Mozeliak is openly discussing the Cardinals potentially needing to shop for catching at the same time they are rolling out a special logo to celebrate Molina’s sendoff season.
This is not how Molina should go out. Period.
One of Molina’s greatest attributes is his pride. When critics came for his bat, he quieted them by improving his hitting, usually refusing to talk about the strides his swing made. When Cubs critics came for St. Louis, he defended his so-called boring adopted hometown. When opponents cross his teammates, look out.
The same force that makes Molina a Cardinals icon forever and a future Hall of Famer now is working against him. He’s not proud of how this season is playing out. Still, he has to understand this team needs him. What the Cardinals do at catcher in 2023 is a huge question. The best option for 2022 is Molina walking through those doors. ASAP.
“I have a high level of confidence he will return,” Marmol said.
That there could be some doubt is a cloud hurting this club.
“If Yadi is healthy to catch, he is going to help us win a championship,” Marmol said. “It’s in his nature to.”
The Cardinals need their catcher, and Molina needs to come do his damnedest to finish what he started.