As reported yesterday by Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, St. Louis Cardinals eight-time Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina was required to have a second offseason surgery on the left thumb he injured back on September 20th against the rival Chicago Cubs. After the first reportedly "successful" surgery, we were informed that Molina would have a full recovery and almost certainly be ready by the start of spring training. Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore as he will miss most (if not all) of spring training and his status for opening day is also now in doubt, meaning that freshly-signed Brayan Pena will likely be pressed into full-time duties at the beginning of the 2016 season.
Since becoming the starter in 2005, Molina, by catcher's standards, has been the definition of durable, finding himself behind the plate for more innings (11,682.2) than any other MLB catcher (A.J. Pierzynski is in second, and roughly 37-games-worth of innings behind Yadi). Yet, Molina turns 34 years of age in July of 2016, and a not surprising trend has popped up in each of the last two seasons: significant injuries. His 2014 season ended prematurely with an injury to his right thumb, and despite being on pace for his most-used season to date, he was never really the same, from a hitting standpoint, 2015. This 2015 campaign, too, was cut short by a thumb injury, despite repeated attempts to play through the pain in the playoffs.
While one could have reasonably expected leg/knee issues to be the first sign of Yadi's decline, these are injuries nonetheless, and one cannot help but wonder what (baseball) life is going to be like for the Cardinals after Molina. He is under contract through 2017, with a $15 million mutual option ($2 million buyout) for 2018, and honestly, I don't see him being a player that tries to hang on an extra year or two with another team if the Cardinals decide to part ways. He will be 36 half-way through the 2018 season, and catchers rarely find themselves as full-time players at that age. Heck, Buster Posey just turned 28, and he is already getting a not-insignificant amount of his playing time at first base.
Thus, what's next?
Down on the farm
At Triple-A Memphis, there is current 40-man roster occupant Mike Ohlman. At 25, Ohlman is still very much in play for an MLB job at some point, but given the facts that the Orioles gave up on him so easily (for cash considerations after designating him for assignment) and the Cardinals kept him in Double-A for all of 2015 (after already spending all of 2014 at that level), this MLB job will likely be nothing more than a back-up. There is absolutely no shame in being a back-up catcher in the big leagues, but when we are talking about the inevitable life after Molina, we simply must look elsewhere.
One rung lower is Double-A Springfield—the likely starting point for Carson Kelly. Two years into his transition from third base to catcher, Kelly was awarded a Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove for his work behind the plate with High-A Palm Beach. He was recently named the number ten prospect in the system by John Manuel of Baseball America, who followed up on his report by having very nice things to say about the 21-year-old on Derrick Goold's "Best Podcast in Baseball." Drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft, Kelly's bat has not yet met its pre-draft projections, but the second half of 2015 was a positive start as he slashed .263/.294/.414 in 186 at bats, which is more than respectable production from a defense-first catcher. Plus, for what it's worth, the Florida State League is an undeniable black hole for hitters, and Peoria (Low-A) isn't generally all that nice to hitters, either, so I don't think we will get an encompassing grasp of Kelly's hitting potential until this season, when he gets his shot at the hitter-friendly Texas League with the Springfield Cardinals.
Keeping with those who have transitioned to the position, we arrive at Chris Rivera, an athletic former middle infielder who first picked up a catcher's mitt at last year's instructs and then continued at the position for the rookie league Johnson City Cardinals. While his bat has been less than stellar (.216/.283/.340 in 491 at bats), his arm behind the plate is phenomenal (think 70 grade on a 20 to 80 scale). Caught stealing percentages in rookie league do not mean all that much, but it is still quite impressive that he was able to throw out 16 of 35 (46%) would-be base-stealers in his first year at the position.
2015 17th round draft pick, Chris Chinea, out of LSU, smacked the ball all over the diamonds in Johnson City (Rookie League) and State College (Short-Season A) after being drafted, slashing a combined .309/.352/.497. However, he is only 165 at bats into his professional career so it is not fair to put too much stock into these numbers. Plus, there remains an uncertainty as to whether or not Chinea will be able to "stick" at catcher from a defensive standpoint long-term.
In the draft
The red baron has begun his annual draft previews, so if you are interested and missed yesterday's, click here. While he included no catchers in his piece, he will likely have full posts dedicated to available catchers in the weeks to come. Plus, in his review of the Perfect Game All-American, he provided the names of at least six high school catching prospects that the Cardinals may be interested in targeting, particularly Ben Rortvedt out of Wisconsin. When it comes to collegiate catching prospects, names to keep an eye on are Chris Okey (Clemson), Zack Collins (The U), and possibly Michael Tinsley (Kansas). As with Kyle Schwarber being selected so early, though, I would be surprised if the first two would even be available for the Cardinals when it is time for their selection. Stay tuned to the red baron's updates for names and scouting reports on catchers I have missed.
Unfortunately, Molina cannot catch forever. Internally, Carson Kelly is the Cardinals' best chance at a long-term replacement. While his bat has not quite come around, one must not forget that he is still only 21 years of age. If he is unable to hit enough at Hammons Field, then it is probably time to look outside the organization. The problem with looking externally is that opposing teams are rarely interested in trading projectable catching prospects. With, at present, three picks in the first round (one regular, two compensatory), I would not be surprised to see new scouting director Randy Flores select a catching prospect early.