As documented by JP Morosi of Fox Sports, if Yadier Molina starts opening day 2016 for the St. Louis Cardinals, the 33-year-old catcher will move into sole possession of the third-longest streak of opening day starts (every year since 2005) by a catcher in Major League Baseball history. Given the grueling nature of the position, a streak of 11 seasons is already quite a feat, and considering what Molina has gone through in each of the last two seasons, it would be more impressive should it be able to continue. Not surprisingly, Molina has made it clear, in this article by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, that his goal is to be ready for the first game of the season against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
While having Molina back as soon as possible is a definite positive for the Cardinals, particularly the pitching staff, one must also remember that his injured thumb (on his catching hand) required two separate surgeries this offseason, and this comes after his significant thumb injury on his throwing hand in 2014. The intricacies of medical information, for good reason, are kept private, but one can hypothesize that a second surgery means one of (at least) two things: 1) the injury was more serious than originally thought or 2) Molina's thumb did not fully respond to the first surgery as planned.
According to Yadier's own brother on the Bernie Miklasz show, the requirement of a second surgery can largely be attributed to Yadi pushing through the pain to make sure he was available for the playoff games against the Cubs. Now, by playing in cold-weather games with an already-injured thumb, Molina could have absolutely worsened the injury, but even then, it would not necessarily guarantee the need for two separate operations (as suggested by his brother Bengie). To be fair, the medical staff could have had two surgeries planned all along (similar to what many doctors do when reconstructing multiple torn ligaments in a knee), but this is something that will likely never become public knowledge.
Regardless, it is an undeniable fact that Yadier Molina has not been available to play in the last games of both 2014 (6-3 loss to the Giants in the NLCS) and 2015 (6-4 loss to the Cubs in the NLDS). While the current goal may be to have Molina ready for opening day, shouldn't the true focus be on the long-term? By starting opening day, is there the potential to compromise his availability later in the season? Sure, a win in April is worth the exact same as a win in September, but the Cardinals hope to go deep into October, where wins come with a very different meaning. Fortunately, the Cardinals signed a more qualified backup in Brayan Pena should Molina go down, but going this route is a very distant plan B. If 2014 and 2015 are any indication, the Cardinals would much rather have the opportunity to stick with plan A (a healthy Molina) for the entirety of their playoffs stay.
Please understand that Molina just may be right on track to be ready for opening day. The Cardinals may not be rushing him back whatsoever. He is already catching bullpens down in Jupiter, which is a welcome development and a positive sign for his progress. Yet, Molina is not getting any younger. Significant injuries have occurred in each of the last two seasons. Here, at STLToday.com, and elsewhere, many are already looking to the future to see who will be Yadi's eventual replacement.
While Molina's value to the Cardinals may be immeasurable, it is also irreplaceable, so should there be any spring training setbacks (minor or significant, really), it would be wise for the Cardinals to immediately step on the brakes and thoroughly reassess the situation. Now, holding Molina out until he is 100% healthy does not guarantee full-season health by any means, but it increases the likelihood of this happening as compared to rushing him back at 90%. This article is not at all meant to be an indictment of the Cardinals' decision-making process regarding injuries, but rather an understanding that Yadier will be pushing heavily to get his name in the opening day starting lineup. For his sake and the Cardinals', it is best to handle his eventual return with utmost care.