The St. Louis Cardinals’ 2011 preseason has been one of the most up-and-down, questioned, scrutinized, and intriguing in recent memory. But for all the chatter that seems to have found almost every corner of the field, one area remains oddly—but, perhaps thankfully—quiet: catcher.
When the team left for Spring Training, the team was as set as it ever has been that early in the year. The only real issue at hand was one of business: the Albert Pujols arrival/contract deadline. But then Adam Wainwright got hurt. That was a big one. Ditto Nick Punto…so much for the Cards’ depth. Chris Carpenter and Mitchell Boggs found themselves with minor injuries; suddenly the entire pitching staff looks shaky. Lance Berkman has an elbow issue; how will he be able to throw from right field? The news hasn’t been all bad, though. Pujols and Matt Holliday are doing what they do. David Freese is hitting well and easing back into the grind. Kyle McClellan looks ready to accept a promotion to the rotation. Matt Carpenter is turning a lot of heads with his production. Things are falling apart in some places and into place in others.
But what about the Cards’ backstops? Other than their mentions in the lineup, has anyone heard one word about Yadier Molina or Gerald Laird?
Statistics tell very little at this point in Spring Training. Molina is batting .250; Laird, .375. What is really telling is that Molina and Laird are playing and appear healthy…because the Cards’ depth at catcher beyond them is not encouraging. If Molina does go down, however, Laird is more than equipped to be the every day starter for an extended period of time. He is the most capable backup the Cards have had since Molina held the position behind Mike Matheny.
A lot rests on the #2 position in the field this season for the Cardinals. Good catchers tend to run the show while the team is in the field. They play kind of a quarterback/extra coach role, especially for the pitcher on the mound. Molina has been lauded by, well, everyone as a guy that is uber-prepared and knows how to handle the game behind the plate. Laird will need to fall in line there as well. And on a team missing its ace, using bullpen arms as starters, and perhaps promoting AAA pitchers to backfill bullpen roles, Molina and Laird will have to be at the top of their game for every game.
Offensively the Cardinals will be in a lot of trouble if they have to rely on high production from either catcher for success. But that doesn’t mean their numbers aren’t needed. Molina showed an affinity for hitting to the opposite field and getting hits in the clutch in recent years; if he can continue that with guys like Freese and Rasmus possibly hitting in front of him he could be in a position to collect a lot of RBI in the seventh or eighth spot in the order. Laird, like Molina, is known more for his glove than his bat. But he will need to produce similar at bats to Molina, too, and drive runners in when given the opportunity.
Molina will likely again be the most feared stolen base stopper in the league. His career 47% caught stealing rate is stellar, and don’t forget about those 38 pickoffs. Laird’s caught stealing rate is 38%, which is not bad at all (MLB average is 28%). He doesn’t have the gaudy pickoff number (four career), but Pujols is a big part of that play as well. Maybe Laird can adopt “the Cardinal way” of the pickoff and get a little more prolific…he certainly has the arm for it. All in all, base runners will have to beware before taking off for a swipe or straying too far off the bag. And considering the Cards have a pitch-to-contact staff in front of an unspectacular (at best) middle infield, Molina’s and Laird’s arms could be more valuable weapons than even the Cards are used to.
The Cardinals have a good thing going with their catchers. They may not be offensive juggernauts, but if their defense and game calling remains at a high level they don’t have to be. For Cards fans looking to collect as many bright spots as they can, keep an eye on Molina and Laird and assume no news is good news.