Cards face catching questions as Yadi recovers

Club expects vet to be ready for opener, but may have to turn to Pena

Cards face catching questions as Yadi recovers

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 six-part Around the Horn series that will take a position-by-position look at the Cards' projected starters and backup options heading into next season. Up first: Catchers.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Cardinals will gather at Spring Training with some uncertainty at the catcher's position.

The ideal scenario has Yadier Molina ready to open the season behind the plate, even if he is limited in Grapefruit League play, while wrapping up his recovery from a second surgical procedure on his left thumb. But there are no assurances of such a time frame, and that leaves plans for the position somewhat nebulous as the Cardinals prepare to open camp.

Molina wins eighth Gold Glove

Molina's 2015 season ended in the dugout, where he was relegated to a spectator after a torn ligament in his left thumb made it too difficult to perform on the field. Surgery followed just days after the season ended, but it was unsuccessful. A repeat procedure was required two months later, in mid-December, and that has Molina still in a cast.

The strengthening process will begin in full next month, and that leaves questions about how soon Molina will be able to resume swinging. All this will affect his readiness for the April 3 season opener in Pittsburgh.

"We still expect him to be ready by Opening Day," general manager John Mozeliak said at the time of Molina's second surgery. "But this is certainly a setback for how he'll be used in Spring Training."

But as healthy as Molina may be by April, the playing time question will persist. The eight-time Gold Glove winner will be 34 this summer, and while he has shown little interest in a reduction of playing time, the Cardinals are cognizant of the risks that come with overexposure.

Molina has had his past three seasons interrupted by injury, and the Cardinals' playoff runs of 2014 and '15 ended with him sidelined. Though no catcher has logged more starts or innings behind the plate since '05 than Molina, the Cards have talked internally about reining in that workload to improve his chances of staying on the field for a full season.

How those days off may be structured, and if they will be intentionally prescheduled, remains to be determined. But the successful pursuit of free-agent catcher Brayan Pena this offseason did reveal a shift in how the Cardinals prioritized the backup catcher position.

Cardinals sign catcher Pena

While Tony Cruz spent four years capably backing up Molina, St. Louis sought out to find a better fit. In Pena, the club believes it is better positioned to sit Molina when necessary. The switch-hitting Pena, who turned 34 on Thursday, has had particular offensive success from the left side.

Pena signed a two-year deal with the Cards in November after making a career-high 84 starts for the Reds in 2015. He has, however, become accustomed to serving in the same backup role that he will be asked to fill in St. Louis.

"I always have been one of those players who will do anything to help my team win," Pena said. "Sometimes you can do more from the bench than on the field. I know my role. I understand my role. And I embrace my role."

Behind Pena, the Cardinals' catching depth isn't Major League ready. Carson Kelly won a Minor League Gold Glove award last season, but hasn't played above the high Class A level. Mike Ohlman is the third catcher on the 40-man roster, though he's projected to begin the year at Triple-A Memphis. His calling card is his bat.

Mozeliak has said he will keep his pulse on the catching market as the Hot Stove season continues to see if he can enhance that depth. Any signing at this point would likely be a Minor League deal.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.