The National League Central is shaping up to once again be the most competitive division in Major League Baseball, as four of the five clubs are over .500 and fighting for playoff berths. Alas, that landscape took a pair of hits on Wednesday night when two big-name players—Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals and Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds—suffered long-term injuries.
Not only are Molina and Phillips similar in that they're up-the-middle players known for two things—defense and durability—but both also will be out several weeks with nearly identical thumb injuries.
Here's how the absences of Molina and Phillips could impact their respective teams, as well as the NL Central race and NL postseason picture.
Yadier Molina and the St. Louis Cardinals
After leaving Wednesday night's game early upon injuring his right thumb on this play in the second inning, Molina was diagnosed with a torn ligament and is expected to miss 8-12 weeks, according to Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com.
That's about as damaging a loss as could possibly happen to any team in baseball, as Molina is the best defensive catcher around, one of the better offensive players at his position and a leader both on the field and in the clubhouse for the Cardinals. All of that makes him a six-time defending Gold Glover and perennial MVP candidate.
Granted, the soon-to-be 32-year-old isn't having his finest season with the stick in 2014—his triple slash stats of .287/.341/.409 each represent Molina's lowest since 2010—but St. Louis' offense has been its biggest problem all year long, and now it's only going to get worse. To wit, the Cards rank third-to-last in the majors in runs scored—and that was with Molina in the lineup most every day.
Beyond that, there's bound to be an impact in the club's defense and pitching, as Molina's ability to work with pitchers, call games and generally know everything about his batterymates is unparalleled. Given all of the pitching injuries St. Louis has suffered—from Michael Wacha to Jaime Garcia to Joe Kelly—Molina's thumb injury hurts a heck of a lot more than just him.
In short, replacing all of the above isn't going to happen. General manager John Mozeliak said as much to Langosch:"I think from a standpoint of trying to replace [Molina], that’s not even a logical question."
Considering that the Cardinals haven't performed up to expectations thus far but are still very much in the NL Central race and NL playoff picture as a whole, they have to worry about at least finding some way to cover the position with a capable catcher.
Otherwise, everything could fall apart for a team that most people expected to win the division and have a great shot at getting back to the World Series.
Who Replaces Molina?
In the immediate short term, backup Tony Cruz will take over catching duties. Thing is, he is a backup not only because he's behind Molina—who has caught the most games (622) and squatted for the most innings (5,267.2) in baseball over the past five years, both by wide margins—but also because he's not capable of being an everyday catcher.
The 27-year-old Cruz has been in the bigs since 2011, and the most games he's played at catcher is 47 in 2012. In terms of games started behind the dish? Try 28 in 2012 and 2013.
He better be ready to set new career highs.
The other in-house candidate for the Cardinals is Audry Perez, a 25-year-old at Triple-A who is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster and was recalled Thursday. Perez has exactly two games in the majors, both from last September, on his resume.
"We need to find a stopgap," Mozeliak said, via Langosch. "We have a lot of confidence in Cruz, that’s why he is our backup. Now he’s going to get an opportunity to play every day. But in the meantime, we’re also going to look out and see if there is something in that can help balance it out in the short term."
As far as backstops who are available via trade, there's 37-year-old veteran A.J. Pierzynski, who would come cheap because he's fresh off being designated for assignment by the Boston Red Sox.
For some other options on the trade front, here are a few from Jim Bowden of ESPN:
The tricky aspect here is that Molina's defense is so superior to just about every other catcher—and certainly any semi-available one—that the Cardinals will feel that loss badly. But if they try to focus purely on a defense-only backstop, then their offense—the club's biggest problem all season long—will continue to suffer.
Brandon Phillips and the Cincinnati Reds
This is going to sound familiar: After leaving Wednesday night's game early upon injuring his left thumb on this play while diving to snare a ground ball hit in the hole between first and second base, Phillips was diagnosed with a torn ligament and will be out at least six weeks, according to Manny Randhawa of MLB.com.
Like Molina, Phillips is slated for surgery on Friday. Also like Molina, this injury is going to put an abrupt end to a string of good health. Phillips, a 13-year veteran and four-time Gold Glove winner, has played at least 140 games each season since 2006—eight years and no longer counting—and 150 or more in four of the past five.
That's a remarkable run, especially for a middle-of-the-diamond player who is so often in the thick of the action.
Phillips' injury comes at a time not long after the Reds had finally started to get healthy, only to have first baseman Joey Votto go back on the disabled list earlier this week with another quad injury, followed by leadoff hitter and center fielder Billy Hamilton fighting a tight left hamstring and now right-hander Homer Bailey leaving his start Thursday due to pain in his right knee.
While Phillips is not the indispensable player that Molina is or quite the impact player he once was now that he's 33 years old and on the downside of his career, the Reds will miss his defense and occasional pop at the plate. He had hit 18 home runs each of the past four years and set a career best with 103 RBI in 2013 while hitting behind on-base mavens Votto and Shin-Soo Choo (now with the Texas Rangers).
Even adding Phillips' extended absence to all the injuries the Reds have endured, the club managed to hang around the outskirts of contention early on and has climbed over .500 and right into the NL Central chase in recent weeks.
That may be a sign that the Reds just might find a way to get over losing Phillips until perhaps September.
Who Replaces Phillips?
The Reds are a little better positioned to cover for the loss of Phillips than the Cardinals are for Molina. Cincinnati can turn to Skip Schumaker and Ramon Santiago, a pair of longtime veteran utility players who have combined for 23 seasons and 789 career games at the keystone.
The just-recalled Kristopher Negron also has some experience at second in the minor leagues.
Looking outside the organization, there are some potentially available second basemen, including Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets, Aaron Hill of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Gordon Beckham of the Chicago White Sox. Ben Zobrist of the Tampa Bay Rays and Chase Utley of the Philadelphia Phillies are possible pry-aways, too, but at a steeper cost.
As with Molina, there are factors that make finding a fill-in for Phillips more challenging, namely that he's still under contract through 2017 and is owed more than $40 million. The small-market Reds won't be going after any second baseman who is signed to a long-term deal or has a lot of money coming to him—they can't afford it and wouldn't have the room for both players beyond 2014.
That makes Utley (owed $10 million in 2015 with vesting options through 2018) and Hill ($24 million from 2015-16) unlikely fits. If the Reds want to go cheap, they could take a look at the Chicago Cubs' Darwin Barney, who is all glove and no bat.
Otherwise, some combination of Schumaker and Santiago falls under the "won't hurt" category.
Which NL Central Contender Is Hurt More by the Injury?
To wrap up, let's hit on the above question. The answer, obviously, is the Cardinals, who haven't put it all together yet this season and now will have a harder time doing so in just about every facet of the game.
Besides, given the dearth of good catchers in the sport and the very nature of the position—they're involved in every single pitch from their team—backstops are harder to replace.
For their part, the Reds are losing a key up-the-middle player too, and one who has been a big part of the franchise's run in recent seasons with three trips to the postseason in four years. With Phillips being added to the laundry list of injuries in Cincinnati, that string of success could be in jeopardy.
Ultimately, though, if one of these two long-term injuries is going to determine how the ubercompetitive NL Central plays out over the second half—and which team could get left out of October—it will be Molina's.
To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11