ST. LOUIS -- With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Spring Training in six weeks, it's time to begin dissecting the Cardinals' 2015 roster. This is the first of a seven-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Cardinals' projected starters and backup options heading into next season. Up first: Catchers.
The only continuous on-field thread through the organization's run of four World Series appearances in 11 seasons will be back behind the plate in 2015 as Yadier Molina begins his 12th year in a Cardinals uniform. He has made the catching position the most stable on the roster for the last decade, and the only thing potentially standing in the way of Molina starting at least 100 games for an 11th straight season would be his health.
Molina, who will turn 33 in July, had a mixed season a year ago. He continued to set the catching standard defensively, but a thumb injury cost him seven weeks over the summer and his offensive production waned. An oblique injury later knocked Molina out of the National League Championship Series.
While his work with the pitching staff embodies a significant portion of Molina's value, the Cardinals do hope that there is an offensive uptick in 2015. Last year, Molina posted his lowest OPS+ (109), batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.333) and slugging percentage (.386) since 2010 and tallied only 28 extra-base hits, 28 fewer than his 2013 total. Molina's WAR value dropped to 2.4 after seasons at 6.9 (2012) and 6.0 (2013).
Those dips are significant; so, too, was the time he missed. Needing to maximize what Molina offers to the pitching staff, look for the Cardinals to be more active in giving the veteran catcher days off. Doing so could further limit the attrition connected to the position.
"The guy loves to play the game, but we do have to always keep it in balance, figure out the risk and reward of throwing him out there more often and how we can hopefully hold on to that until the end," manager Mike Matheny said. "He works hard to prepare to be ready to catch as many games as anybody in the league, and we'll see how his body responds."
Tony Cruz will again be in waiting behind Molina, making 2015 the fourth season in which he'll serve as the primary backup. Cruz was exposed last season when the Cardinals had to cover Molina's extended absence, which led the club to sign A.J. Pierzynski. Cruz produced a slash line of .160/.213/.200 while starting 21 games during Molina's DL stint.
However, the Cardinals believe enough in Cruz's ability to handle the pitching staff in sporadic starts that they have opted not to add to their Major League catching depth this winter. Among the challenges in signing an additional catcher was an inability to offer much playing time. Such is the tradeoff in having one of the game's best starters in tow.