When Jhonny Peralta suffered a torn ligament in his thumb in the Cardinals’ Grapefruit League opener, the first concern was the bottom third of the order.
It was safe to figure that Yadier Molina would have some offensive troubles because of his own thumb issues during the off-season. Peralta’s injury took last year’s primary number four hitter out of the Redbird lineup, and moved Randal Grichuk and Steven Piscotty up in the order.
The injury also gave Jed Gyorko, Greg Garcia, Aledmys Diaz and eventual pickup Ruben Tejada a chance to play. The biggest issue with those guys is that they’re all bottom of the order hitters, and that causes a major impact on the overall lineup.
In their opener at Pittsburgh on Sunday, the Cardinals started off with Matt Carpenter, Tommy Pham, Matt Holliday, Grichuk, Piscotty, Molina and then Kolten Wong and Gyorko.
The top five in the order are fair to have expectations for, but Sunday’s bottom four left something to be desired.
Molina’s thumb issues are well-chronicled.
Coming off two surgeries, he had five singles in 27 at bats this spring. He was the only Cardinal with two hits against the Pirates, but to think at this point he’s going to be a top-six in the order hitter or hit with any power is unfair and unrealistic.
He’s the heartbeat of the team. His defense and pitching staff management provide incalculable and irreplaceable impact.
The Cardinals can win with Molina behind the plate, but probably as a seventh or eighth place hitter.
Wong lost the stroke that allowed him to hit .280 with a .777 OPS and nine home runs before the All Star break last year. After the break, he hit just .238 with two homers and a .614 OPS.
Of course in the opener he faced Francisco Liriano, and last year Wong hit .229 against lefthanders. There aren’t many questions about Wong’s physical attributes. Athletically, he can do it all. But Wong needs experience and hard work to become that top-six hitter.
Gyorko was actually sent down by the Padres last season, and while he was OK after being recalled, he’s hit just .229 with a below .300 on base percentage in the last two years. His inexperience at shortstop is well known. It’s certainly not Gyorko’s fault, because he was acquired to be a utility infielder, but if he’s playing every day at shortstop, the Cards are deficient offensively and defensively at that position.
So, what do the Cardinals do? The first thing is to hope.
They need their entire outfield and both corner infielders to be impact hitters. If they can be in the hunt when Peralta returns, they might have a chance. Thumb injuries are tricky propositions. The club put a lot of their hopes into Peralta being available, and are left shorthanded without him. Even when he returns, there are no guarantees that Peralta’s offensive prowess will also.
So, this team needs to hope first and foremost that they can stay afloat. There are three ways they can do that.
1) Pitch like they pitched last year, when the Cards had an historic pitching campaign, compiling a sub-3.00 ERA for the first time since 1968. Since the ’68 club allowed 472 runs, only the 1969 Orioles allowed fewer runs that the 525 that the Cardinals surrendered last season.
They allowed two or fewer runs 80 times. If the Cardinals can repeat that kind of history, they can succeed again this year.
2) Have Matt Holliday go back in time, and carry the team for a month or more. In June and July of 2012, Holliday hit .363 with nine homers, eighteen doubles, and 36 RBI. That kind of production would offset much of what Peralta would have done.
If Grichuk and Piscotty do what they did last year, greatness from Holliday would go a long way toward keeping the Cardinals in contention.
3) Have Wong emerge as the hitter the Cardinals envision with his new contract. We saw in the first half last year what Wong is capable of, and if he can become that player, that’ll solve a lot of the problems. A lineup of Carpenter, Piscotty, Holliday, Grichuk, Matt Adams or Brandon Moss, a solid Wong, then Molina and the shortstop wouldn’t quite be the ’27 Yankees (or the ’04 Cardinals), but it might be enough to tide the Redbirds over until Peralta comes back.
Ultimately, this team won’t win if, minus Peralta, every player performs to their career averages. There simply isn’t enough quality history for that to happen. If Peralta were healthy, it might be enough.
So, the Cardinals will either need to repeat making history again, get an unlikely bounce back season from a fading star, or have a young player emerge into what the club hopes he can be next year, but do it a year early.