Scott Miller's Starting 9: Yadier Molina, Cards Holding Breath for Healthy Year

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Scott Miller's Starting 9: Yadier Molina, Cards Holding Breath for Healthy Year
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

JUPITER, Fla. — Is that coconut smell sunblock or a pina colada? Tough to tell in the Grapefruit League...

 

1. Yadier Molina Is All Thumbs

Along about December, Yadier Molina noticed his left hand just didn't feel right.

Now, here is where it may have been a blessing that he damaged his right thumb enough to warrant surgery in 2014. Because when he did the same thing to his left thumb—a torn ligament, a year later—and underwent surgery just after the 2015 season ended, he recognized a few weeks later that the surgery didn't take. Because in recovery, it wasn't feeling like the right thumb had.

So he underwent the knife a second time, in December. And now here baseball's best catcher is, rehabbing 45 minutes a day, working his hand through a bucket of rice, racing the calendar to be ready for Opening Day.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

"It was discouraging," Molina told Bleacher Report the other day on the subject of being forced to undergo a second surgery this winter; and after all this, thank goodness he doesn't have a third thumb.

"You're always nervous. Every time you have surgery, there are always risks.

"Right now, I'm happy where I am. The thumb is responding to all of the therapy work they're doing."

The Cardinals are determined to take it slow with their prized catcher. If he misses Opening Day, so be it. They want him for the long haul. And after a couple of consecutive injury-plagued years, keeping Molina on the field is one of the chief priorities for St. Louis this spring.

Molina is as valuable to this team as any single individual player to any other club in the majors. He is the quarterback in a baseball town that just lost its NFL franchise, an eight-time Gold Glove winner, a seven-time All-Star and a permanent security blanket for manager Mike Matheny and pitchers from Adam Wainwright to Michael Wacha.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

"I will tell you this: As far as catching goes and the manager-catcher relationship, he has been a priceless asset to me as a manager and to us as a club," Matheny said. "For him to do his job as well as he does it makes just about everybody around here better."

Talk about freak stuff. Molina, 33, suffered the injury to his left thumb on a play at the plate when tagging Anthony Rizzo as the Chicago Cubs first baseman slid last Sept. 20.

Just 14 months earlier, in July 2014, he suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb while sliding into third base.

"It happens; it's baseball," Molina said. "It's weird, but it can happen."

He is walking, talking, squatting proof. He eased into a few light catching drills Friday, and while the Cards will keep a tight leash on him, Molina is determined to be ready by Opening Day.

Meanwhile, playing the role of the catcher few in St. Louis want to see (nothing personal, of course) is veteran Brayan Pena, whom the Cards signed over the offseason.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

And don't worry, Cardinals fans. He knows you don't prefer him in the lineup very often, and he understands.

"Yadier is one of those guys who is so great and so awesome that everybody is pulling for him," said Pena, 34, an 11-year veteran who also has spent time with the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds.

"Me, personally, I understand my role. I have a responsibility to be ready whenever my name is called. I'm excited about it. You're excited to have the opportunity.

"But I understand I have a future Hall of Famer in front of me, and I'm playing next to a legend."

While the rice bucket is one key to Molina whipping his hand back into shape, he's also using weights and laser therapy to try to push things along.   

The big worry, of course, is that Molina is creeping toward his mid-30s, and he's playing one of the game's most punishing positions. The right thumb cost him 40 games in '14, and his 110 games played that summer were his fewest since his rookie season in 2004 (51 games).

Last year, he played in 136 contests but came up lame at the end and was nowhere close to himself while gallantly playing three games in the National League Division Series loss to the Chicago Cubs.

"You spent the whole year healthy, and then at the end you get hurt," he said. "Two, three years in a row now (he spent time on the disabled list in August 2013 with a knee sprain).

"I'm not giving up on myself. I'm trying to get better. I'm trying to get back on track with my thumb. I'm looking forward to the season."

 

2. New Program for the Panda

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

We'll see how this turns out: Maybe going grim-faced and laser-focused will help Pablo Sandoval produce a strong bounce-back season in 2016.

But following some unfortunate introductory comments upon his arrival to camp this spring, the Panda has shut things down. He is not talking to the media—at least, that's what he told B/R on Monday—after his weight again tipped the scales of poor PR against him.

Sandoval told Boston reporters when he arrived that he didn't worry about losing weight over the winter:

He also didn't seem that bothered by his disappointing 2015 season, basically saying, Hey, that's baseball; sometimes you have good years, and sometimes you don't.

That is exactly what they don't want to hear in Boston, where the 2013 World Series title barely has made up for last-place finishes in three of the past four years.

Stay tuned.

 

3. Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood Has Gone Cuckoo

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

New sliding rules take effect this year—call it the Chase Utley Rule—and it is something else for everyone to try to figure out this spring.

The biggest issue is the "neighborhood play," which now is subject to instant replay, which means second basemen and shortstops will need to actually touch the base with a foot instead of swiping the general area before throwing to first.

The reason they've been allowed to brush past the base without touching it for so long is self-preservation: With a baserunner barreling in, everybody agreed it was in the infielder's best interest to get out of the way quickly.

The new rules force the runner to slide into the base and not target the infielder, which isn't a bad thing. But as sure as cheeseburgers are delicious, you can be sure that subjecting it to instant replay is going to bring unintended consequences this season.

"We're making a slide rule that keeps you on the bag...and now you've got to make a decision on the neighborhood play that you've got to stay on the bag," Mets manager Terry Collins, a former infielder, said the other day in Port St. Lucie, Florida. "You know what that is going to mean? Somebody is going to get their clocks cleaned."

In Jupiter, Florida, Matheny said he is still digesting the rule but that the team will continue to teach its middle infielders the same things it always has in terms of technique around second base.

"Protect yourself and do what's expected," Matheny said.

As for veteran Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia, he says he hasn't paid much attention to it yet and will figure it out as he goes along. Surely, he won't be the only one.

 

4. Clayton Kershaw Left His Impression on Cuba

Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

Pena, the Cardinals catcher, traveled along with Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Jose Abreu and others on an MLB goodwill trip to Cuba in November and still cannot get over Kershaw's kindness and accessibility.

"I really love that guy because he was unbelievable in the way he embraced kids and my people," Pena, a native of Cuba, told B/R. "You have to appreciate that. He's a future Hall of Famer, he's taking time away from his family to help kids, he's speaking Spanish.

"The guy stole my heart. I know why God put him in that position. I was so impressed with the way he embraced the Cuban people."

 

5. Rumbling Afield with Miguel Sano

Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

It is 8 a.m. on a chilly Florida morning, and there Twins phenom Miguel Sano is, out in right field on Field 6, with newly minted coach Torii Hunter as his tutor.

Sano, 22, is in the midst of one of the game's most fascinating transitions. He is 6'4" and 260 pounds with a big enough body and an important enough bat that you wonder two things: Can the man who primarily has played third base throughout his professional career play right field without hurting the Twins defensively? And can he do it without hurting himself?

The Twins like Trevor Plouffe at third base, and with Joe Mauer at first and newly signed Byung Ho Park ready to step in at designated hitter, right field was the natural move for Sano.

"We feel the move is doable," Twins general manager Terry Ryan told B/R. "Miguel wants to play; he doesn't want to DH. We don't want him to DH. He's athletic enough. He's a surprisingly good runner for the size of the man.

"We understand it's going to take time."

The recently retired Hunter, in camp as a special instructor, is charged with attempting to shorten that time. Sano told Hunter that back home in the Dominican Republic, he played shortstop, third base, first base, outfield and whatever else was asked of him.

"He's not afraid because he's been there before," Hunter said. "I'm trying to show him things like how to block the lights, how to line up, how the ball comes off of the bat differently from a left-hander than from a right-hander, the spin, slice, topspin. Trying to help him recognize that."

Hunter and Butch Davis, who is the Twins outfield coach, are working overtime, and they have a willing student.

Given that Sano slammed 18 homers and racked up 52 RBI in just 80 games for the Twins last year, the possibilities are tantalizing.

 

6. Heart of 29

Hannah Foslien/Associated Press

The most touching moments of the week were watching Hall of Famer Rod Carew in uniform as a special coach for the Minnesota Twins. Carew nearly died after suffering a massive heart attack five months ago.

Carew was in uniform Saturday while the Twins held their first full-squad workout, and in tribute to him they all wore red "Heart of 29" T-shirts, citing the name of the charity through which Carew is working to raise money for the research and prevention of heart disease.

"I wanted to be here real bad," said Carew, 70, who is four months away from a heart transplant. "I knew it would help as far as my spirits went to be around all of the guys."

The Twins have been pushing Carew's Heart of 29 cause since they nearly lost the man who took a serious run at .400 in 1977, when he hit .388 to win the sixth of seven batting titles.

"I told them I want to save lives," Carew said. "I want people to understand that they've got to take care of their ticker.

"The worst thing I did was not take my medication. I just threw it away. And I never went back to the doctor. You think you're healthy, and it knocked me on my butt, just like that."

 

7. Weekly Power Rankings

Jon Barash/Associated Press

1. New Sliding Rules: Utley should tour Grapefruit and Cactus League camps to demonstrate.

2. Academy Awards: #OscarsSoWhite, #ChrisRockSoFunny.

3. Ian Desmond: The loss of Josh Hamilton (sore knee) is Desmond's gain in Texas. Still, a hollow gain it is on a one-year, $8 million deal after Desmond declined a seven-year, $107 million extension offer from the Nationals before the 2014 season.

4. Exhibition games: Welcome back, games. Who isn't ready to take this thing onto the field this week? But, hey, who is No. 75? And 81? And 92?

5. Grouper: Thanks for being so delicious during spring training in Florida, grouper. Now, can someone please pass a slice of key lime pie?

 

8. Mets Look to Ride Yoenis Cespedes' Coattails

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Lou Truppa is on the front lines of what has been the biggest story going on right now with the New York Mets.

No, he is not the latest phenom for the defending National League champions. He is 80.

And he stands sentry at the gate to the players' parking lot in Port St. Lucie.

"It is on everybody's mouth," Truppa, now in his eighth year guarding the players' parking lot, told B/R. "They're all looking for him.

"What's he driving today?"

First day here, the flamboyant slugger stopped and asked Truppa where he could park his Ford F-250 pickup truck.

"He stops to say hello every day," said Truppa, who since has watched Cespedes roll by in a three-wheel Polaris Slingshot, a fire-breathing Lamborghini and, Thursday, a $250,000 cherry red, two-seat Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, complete with his No. 52 on the wheels.

Some of the Mets are amused by the show; others simply do their best to ignore it.

Come April, the only thing the Mets will care about Cespedes driving is fastballs. They did not sign him to a three-year, $75 million deal following their inspirational run to the World Series in October simply to drive up the value of their parking lot.

Cespedes already had a reputation as something of a diva, which some in the industry said over the winter is why he wasn't getting the expected five- or six-year monster contract offers.

The gaudy cars will do nothing to quell that.

Nor will the fact that he sent someone to Target the other day to purchase a round waffle-maker for the clubhouse chefs. Previously this spring, the Mets had been forced to eat—horrors—square waffles.

Quirky is amusing early in camp, and who doesn't love waffles (ahem, round or square); and, yes, the auto show has given Cespedes the attention he apparently craves.

From here on out, though, it's all about parking baseballs.

Not whatever Cespedes is parking in the Mets' lot.

"Always different cars," said Truppa, whose favorite Mets in 16 years of working spring training here are Mike Piazza, John Franco, Al Leiter and Pedro Martinez.

Meanwhile, over there in a space under a palm tree is Truppa's car: a dark blue 2009 Kia with 165,000 miles on it.

"I've never had a more comfortable ride," he said, smiling, as the Mets shifted hard into 2016 gear.

 

9. Joe Girardi Will Take Depth from Anywhere

But can this little guy hit?

Guess he won't be in today's lineup...

 

9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week

Don't blame me for this one. I'm just passing along what I heard in the Minnesota Twins clubhouse at 7:30 a.m. the other day in Fort Myers, Florida (and, why, yes, it is jarring to hear this blasting that early in the morning)...

"Cottonwood fallin' like snow in July

"Sunset, riverside, four-wheel drives

"In a tail-light circle

"Roll down the windows, turn it on up

"Pour a little crown in a Dixie cup

"Get the party started

"Girl you make my speakers go boom boom

"Dancin' on the tailgate in the full moon

"That kinda thing makes a man go mmm hmmm"

—Luke Bryan, "Drunk on You"

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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