Major League Baseball | St. Louis Cardinals

NL Central Race Becomes Battle of Attrition

My thought before this baseball season started was that, if National League Central teams only experienced ordinary injury issues during the season, the Reds would win the division and that the Cardinals would have to hunt for one of the two NL wild-card spots available.

Of course, injury issues went beyond normal on opening day when the Reds lost Ryan Ludwick to a devastating shoulder injury. His replacement, Chris Heisey, has been injured most of the season. Ace Johnny Cueto has only been available for nine of 18 starts, and now both catchers, Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan, have hit the DL. The Reds are hanging in there, but their injuries could wind up being catastrophic.

The Cardinals have been without Jaime Garcia for most of the season and Jake Westbrook for a month. Before the season started, they lost Chris Carpenter for what they thought was forever and Jason Motte for the season. But the only position players for the Cards to miss time have been David Freese for the first week and Matt Adams for about three weeks.

The Pirates started the year with starters Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens on the DL, then subsequently disabled James McDonald after six starts. Their top two starters, A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez were soon added to that list, too. Liriano, Morton and Burnett have all returned, but at the moment Karstens, McDonald and Rodriguez are still hurt. The only position injuries for Pittsburgh so far have been to reserve outfielder Jose Tabata and two DL stints for second baseman Neil Walker, who was just disabled again this week with an oblique strain.

Because of the depth of their pitching, both the Cardinals and Pirates would be disappointed if they didn’t make the playoffs, and the Reds, because of the injuries that have befallen them, would be thrilled.

The reason I bring this up now is that as we approach the All Star break, wear and tear usually begin to set in. Yadier Molina has missed most of the last week with knee soreness, and Mike Matheny says he’ll rest Molina more as the season unfolds. Matt Holliday suffered a strained right hamstring running to first in the opener of a four-game series at Chicago and may miss some time, too.

The Cardinals were able to overcome their pitching injuries with an amazing array of young talent that came up and filled in not only for the injured guys, but for imploding veterans Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski.

The depth to overcome potential losses of guys like Molina and Holliday just isn’t there. Obviously, Molina is the most indispensable player on the team. On defense – with his game-calling, managing of the staff, throwing and blocking of balls in the dirt – he’s the best. The young pitchers simply wouldn’t be as good if he weren’t there. Plus, he’s spent much of the season leading the league in hitting. With all due respect to Tony Cruz and Rob Johnson, some of those pitchers would be lost without Molina behind home plate.

While Matt Adams has been a revelation as a part-time player, we have to remember that last year when he started off as an everyday guy due to injuries to Lance Berkman and Allen Craig, he hit over .350. But when he reached three weeks as a regular, his production plummeted. I’m not sure Adams is ready to shoulder the load of being an everyday, middle-of-the-lineup hitter like Holliday is. Carlos Beltran can hit third, and Allen Craig can hit fourth. But if Jon Jay has to move up to the No. 2 hole on a regular basis, the Cardinal lineup isn’t nearly as formidable. And if Molina isn’t hitting fifth, the big boys become much easier to pitch around.

At the beginning of the season, many observers would have been comfortable with an Oscar Tavares recall from the minors if an outfielder went down. But Tavares has shown some immaturity at Memphis, and has only played in 46 of the Redbirds’ 94 games – and none since June 23 – because of a lingering high ankle sprain. The Cardinals don’t have an outfielder in their system right now that could come close to matching what Holliday does. And guess what the Reds and Pirates would love to trade for? A righthanded, power-hitting outfielder like Holliday. If that player is moved, which is unlikely, he will come at a tremendous cost to the team that gets him.

Every team is going to be affected by injuries, and the contenders in the National League Central already have. The Cardinals have overcome the loss of pitchers, but as we head toward August, if they lose one of their key position players, they’re going to have some problems.