Five things about the Royals Series

The Cardinals swept the Kansas City Royals in the annual I-70 Series between the two cross state rivals. They now carry a six game winning streak into this weekend’s series against the Atlanta Braves. They are officially 1 game behind the Chicago Cubs for the division lead, though in a virtual tie as they both have 59 wins. I know most people like to look at the loss column, however, the way I see it, any team can lose a game, but you have to earn wins.

As I said earlier, the Braves and former Cardinal Matt Adams are coming to town. Fun fact, Adams makes eight players who started the 2017 season in the Cardinals’ organization who have hit 14 or more home runs this season. And yes, you could make a lineup of all of them without forcing someone to a position they’ve never played.

#RallyCat

Was there really any doubt that this is where the Royals series review was going to start? With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 6th, a kitten ran onto the field at Busch Stadium prompting a brief stoppage in play while field crew member Lucas Hackmann ran out to retrieve the cat. On the very next pitch Yadier Molina hit a grand slam to turn a 5-4 Royals lead into an 8-4 Cardinals lead.

After the game there was some dispute as to where the cat went. Some reported he had been picked up by a local animal shelter and some reported that someone had claimed him outside the stadium. It sounds like a woman claimed the Rally Cat and then it escaped her grasped. Which, while it may seem heartless, adds to the mythology that nobody really knows where the Rally Cat ended up.

Of course, when we needed a Rally Cat moment in Thursday night’s game, Jim “The Cat” Hayes apparently did not feel the need to respond to my Twitter pleas for him to run onto the field. Dexter Fowler hit a grand slam anyway. First time the team has hit go-ahead grand slams in back-to-back games in franchise history.

Speaking of Molina

Apparently a pissed off Molina is a good Molina. Yadier Molina is already hitting .322/.366/.540 with a 137 wRC+ since the All Star Break this season, getting off to the kind of second half he had last year for the Cardinals, but the numbers show he’s also performed well over some discussion about his playing time.

Carson Kelly was promoted by the Cardinals on July 21st and Molina has hit .344/.391/.594 with a 157 wRC+ (good for 26th best in all of baseball) since.

Then Mike Matheny implied on July 27th that Molina was tired and that’s why Kelly started that night. It prompted Molina to post the comment on his Instagram with the argument that he wasn’t tired and that he trains to play 174 games a season because that’s what it takes to become a champion (162 regular season games + 12 minimum postseason wins for a Wild Card team). It could take more than 174, but I digress.

Anyway, since that he’s hit .333/.388/.644 with a 167 wRC+ (good for 24th best in baseball).

Matheny ought to keep this in mind the next time Molina falls into a slump. Just suggest he’s tired.

Offense showing the plus of flexibility

Dexter Fowler has come off the disabled list smoking hot as he hit 6-for-13 with six walks, three doubles, a triple, and a home run in the series after returning to the team on Monday night. He returned batting sixth and then settled into fourth for the last two games of the series.

Jedd Gyorko who has struggled since the All Star Break, started twice in the series and came up with hits both times, including his 15th home run of the season. But otherwise we’ve been seeing a somewhat regular diet of Greg Garcia at third base lately. He pinch hit on Wednesday, but on Monday he had one of my favorite lines. 0-for-2 with 2 walks, an RBI, and a run scored. Since the break, Garcia is hitting .300/.432/.433.

Matheny is also riding the hot hand of Jose Martinez. Martinez went 5-for-16 in the series, starting all four games batting 4th, 2nd, and 6th. Since the break, he’s hitting .316/.449/.658 with 4 home runs.

One of my biggest complaints this season has been Matheny’s insistence on keeping struggling players in key spots of the lineup so that the Cardinals essentially have built in rally killers. Injuries and subpar play have now forced him to become more flexible and we’ve seen the payoff over the last week.

Lyons proving himself in the bullpen

I’ve spoken a few times about my love for Tyler Lyons as a reliever. Not just a lefty specialist reliever, but the ability to be the kind of reliever you can entrust as a regular setup guy. His numbers in the bullpen over the past few years for the Cardinals are strong and with some comfort in the job, could step those up. And he has emerged over the summer as one of Mike Matheny’s better relief options.

In 11 appearances since the All Star Break, Lyons has thrown 9 scoreless innings and allowed just two hits and a walk while striking out 14. While Trevor Rosenthal has gotten the attention for his recent dominance (0.68 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 41% K rate, 11 G) , Lyons (0.00 ERA, 0.33 WHIP, 47% K rate, 11 G) has been even more so.

Going back two months he has a 2.16 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 25 innings out of the bullpen.

You get on base and you get on base! EVERYONE GETS ON BASE!!!

In the first two games of the series, every spot in the Cardinals’ batting order had reached base at least once. The streak reached three games, as they had done it in the series finale against the Reds as well. The streak was broken on Wednesday night as Paul DeJong went 0-for-5 in the 3rd spot while every other lineup spot got on base in the 8-5 win.

Five things about the Rockies Series

The Cardinals completed their first sweep of since June 9-11 when they swept the Philadelphia Phillies at home. They won the past two nights in small part due to the young guys they’ve brought up providing a nice spark of energy. The Cardinals now find themselves 3.5 games behind the Cubs and now back in third place. They have not been this close to first since play wrapped up on July 3rd.

Bader’s Mad Dash

For his first Major League hit on Tuesday night, Harrison Bader ripped a double to left field and raced around the bases. He was bunted over to third by Greg Garcia and then chipped home by Jedd Gyorko. Bader’s dash home was clocked at nearly 30 feet per second according to FOX Sports Midwest last night and that’s Billy Hamilton territory according to Statcast’ Sprint Speeds leaderboard. I see now why the Cardinals think he can play center field.

But that wasn’t the only dash he had to make. On Wednesday he legged out two infield hits. Overall he went 3-for-4 with a double, a walk and a strikeout and put together a more complete game than I’ve seen from a Cardinals prospect in quite some time. For example, it took Paul DeJong 50 plate appearances to take his first walk.

The cavalry showed up

Wednesday night’s 10-5 victory marked the sixth time this season that Carlos Martinez has allowed 4 or more earned runs, but the first time that the Cardinals managed to win the game. When he allows 3 or fewer, the Cardinals are 9-6.

It’s the young guys that are driving this team right now. Paul DeJong hits a home run in the first inning to tie the game back up after the Rockies got to Martinez in the top of the first.  Tommy Pham goes 2-for-2 with an RBI and a pair of runs scored. Randal Grichuk goes 4-for-5. Harrison Bader goes 3-for-4. Kolten Wong goes 0-for-3, but walked twice, scored twice and drove in a run.

There are so many glimmers of what this team could be. They are a very different team with a very different energy with the group of guys they had last night. You almost don’t want Dexter Fowler or Stephen Piscotty to come off the disabled list for fear of messing it up.

Youth movement

One thing I’ve mentioned a lot is the energy this Cardinals’ team is playing with right now and much of that carried on by the younger players. Guys like Paul DeJong, Randal Grichuk, and Tommy Pham who are all tied for the team lead with 14 home runs despite none of them having spent the entire season with the big league club. Pham and Grichuk have both missed a month and DeJong has been up about two months at this point. Those three combined to hit four home runs in the series.

I consider the “young” guys to include those short on MLB experience and perhaps guys who just aren’t established players yet. Guys like DeJong, Pham, Grichuk, Bader, and Wong. In that Colorado series, those five guys hit .436 with 3 doubles, 4 home runs, 11 RBI, and 12 runs scored. Of the 24 runs that the Cardinals scored, 19 of them were scored or driven in by one of those five players.

Molina still bats fifth

I pointed this out on Twitter the other day, that Yadier Molina had the worst OPS of any player in that day’s Cardinals’ lineup. But wait, it gets worse. After being pushed to dig for more advanced stats I discovered that Molina has been the Cardinals’ worst hitter this season by wRC+ and wOBA of all their position players. Only Carson Kelly has been worse, and he has just 6 plate appearances this season and has been up a week.

Oh, yeah

Seung-hwan Oh made an appearance last night, throwing a perfect 9th with two strikeouts. That makes his second perfect appearance in a row as he looks to get back on track. He’s probably not ready to be thrown back into the fire yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Five things about the Nationals Series

The Cardinals marked their second straight series victory against a division contending team, which provides some opportunity for excitement. They took the first two against the Nationals before being shut down by Max Scherzer while Carlos Martinez had an off night. But either way there were some pluses to take away from this series.

The Cardinals are now 39-42 and find themselves 2.5 games back in the division at the official halfway mark of the season. They will play seven games against the Marlins and the Mets before the All Star Break and seem to have a good opportunity to enter the break as a .500 ballclub.

Mejia powers Saturday’s victory

Alex Mejia hadn’t had a stellar debut on Thursday night, but he made up for that by providing all the Cardinals’ offense on Saturday. First he drove in Luke Voit with a single to center field. Then with a 1-0 lead and hearing Trevor Rosenthal was due to enter the game in the 9th, he hit a solo shot to open up the 8th inning to give the Cardinals a 2-0 lead.

That run proved necessary as Rosenthal allowed a run, but was able to hold the lead as the Cardinals won.

The case for Grichuk

Including Saturday’s win, the Cardinals are now 11-0 when Randal Grichuk bats 4th or higher in the batting order this season. On the flip side, they are 15-23 when he starts in the back half of the lineup. That seems to even bear out in his hitting statistics.

Batting 4th or higher in the order, Grichuk is hitting .291/.314/.563 with 3 home runs, 11 RBI, and a 27.4% K rate over 11 games.

Batting 5th or lower in the order, Grichuk is hitting .201/.263/.357 with 4 home runs and 17 RBI with a 31.1% K rate over 43 games.

It’s not really new either. Cardinals were 16-7 when Grichuk started and batted 4th or higher last year, 46-42 when he batted 5th or lower.

Maybe we see a different Grichuk when he has the protection of better hitters? It’s something worth considering, I would think.

Pinch hitting Voit

Luke Voit has only started two games, but he’s still made his presence felt on this Cardinals’ squad in the week he’s been here. Since his call up on June 25th, he has made four pinch hitting appearances and gone 3-for-3 with a HBP. In two of those pinch hit appearances he scored runs.

Leake rebounds

Mike Leake threw 8 innings and allowed just a single run as he posted his best start since May 24th. Following that May 24th start, Leake’s ERA this season was 1.91, and in the six starts in between he posted a 5.15 ERA and he posted an 0-4 record in decisions. His season ERA now stands at 2.97 with one more start remaining before the All Star break. One could argue that he was deserving of an All Star nod this season, given his start and where he currently stands even after a rough June.

Molina’s hitting streak ends

Yadier Molina‘s 16 game hitting streak came to an end on Sunday night as he went 0-for-4 in the series finale. Over the course of the 16 games he hit .333/.354/.492. On the season, Molina is still struggling with a .268/.303/.412 batting line.

Five things about the Pirates Series

The Cardinals dropped two out of three against the Pirates, winning on Sunday night to avoid a sweep. However, they still haven’t won a series against anyone except the Phillies in over a month. Thanks to the Brewers doing their part, the Cardinals remain just five games back in the NL Central at 34-40, but are now in fourth place behind the Pirates.

The Cardinals will play a make up game tonight in St. Louis against the Reds before heading out to Arizona for a three game set against the Diamondbacks.

Seeking an energy change

John Mozeliak told the Post Dispatch that he was seeking an energy change on Sunday and with the callups of Randal Grichuk and Luke Voit is hoping to have done that. Grichuk went 2-for-5 on Sunday night with a home run to open up the inning that the Cardinals tied up the game and Voit took seven pitches during a pinch hit appearance before being hit.

Time will tell if that’s what happened, but the Cardinals played one of their most complete games of the season offensively on Sunday. Every player who came to the plate last nigh reached base at least once.

Voit gets historic HBP

As I noted, Luke Voit was hit by a pitch in his first MLB plate appearance. With that he joins Xavier Scruggs, Dmitri Young, Jerry Buchek, and Austin McHenry as the fifth Cardinal to be hit by pitch in their MLB debuts.

But Voit is probably the first Cardinals player to ever be hit by pitch in his first MLB plate appearance.

Only McHenry remains a possibility, but there is not play-by-play data for 1918, so all we know is that he went 0-for-2 with a HBP in his debut.

Cecil back on the horse?

Brett Cecil struggled mightily to open up the season, but in the Pirates series he made two appearances and allowed zero baserunners over the 1.1 innings he pitched. He has now not allowed a run in 15 of his last 16 outings and has a 0.68 WHIP.

Over his last 8 appearances since he allowed four runs to the Reds, Cecil has thrown 8 innings and allowed just three hits and no walks.

His season ERA is down to 4.08 and with another scoreless inning, will drop below four for just the second time all season.

Waino is bueno… at home?

Adam Wainwright started the season opener on Friday night and pitched seven strong innings, allowing two runs on two hits and two walks. In the midst of the worst season of his career there is a statistical oddity. In 8 home starts this season, Wainwright is 5-1 and has a 2.64 ERA. Compared to his performances on the road where he is 2-4 with a 9.48 ERA in 7 starts, that’s a radical difference.

Yadi’s streak continues

Yadier Molina‘s hitting streak was extended to 11 games as he’s battled some nagging injuries and only played in one game of the Pirates series. He extended it in authoritative fashion though, going 3-for-4 with an RBI and scoring all three times he reached base. He is now batting .333/.333/.556 with 3 home runs over his 11 game streak.

Five things about the Phillies Series

The Cardinals won the series, but anything short of a sweep against one of the two teams that have been worse over their past 30 games entering this series should be a massive disappointment for the team. They find themselves 33-38 in 3rd place in the NL Central, 5 games back.

They remain within striking distance if they were to put together a strong week or two, but that window is slowly closing and may close altogether if the Brewers or the Cubs figure it out first.

The Cardinals are headed home for three against the Pittsburgh Pirates starting tonight at Busch Stadium.

More Pham please

Tommy Pham went 5-for-14 with three home runs in this series, including two on Wednesday night. On Wednesday night his first home run in the 5th put the Cardinals on the board and his second tied up the game in the 9th inning. He became the first Cardinal and one of 14 players to ever hit two home runs and have two outfield assists in the same game. Yet in the post game interview with Jim Hayes on FOX Sports Midwest, Pham was visibly mad. The reason? He struck out three times.

We don’t often see that level of emotion out of Cardinals players post game. Let alone frustration at their failures when the team won and they were one of the key reasons why the team won.

I get the distinct feel that Pham has reached the point in his career that he’s tired of playing the game, and I don’t mean the one on the field. Two months ago he nearly walked away from the sport, but was encouraged to stick it out and here he is and his .285/.371/.514 batting line is still the best on the club. His intention is to just make it difficult for the club to come up with a valid reason to put him on the bench and so far it’s been working.

Maybe some day he’ll actually get to hit ahead of the two guys who typically bat in front of him and haven’t been good at getting on base for him.

Comeback Cards

In each of the first two games of this series, the Phillies struck first and it was the Cardinals that chipped away to eventually win the games. It’s nice to see that from this team and wins are better than losses, however, let’s remember that it is the Phillies and they probably should never have been behind to them in the first place.

Bullpen continues to be strong

The Cardinals bullpen threw 13 innings in this Phillies series thanks to extra innings and an early exit by Michael Wacha, but only allowed just a single earned run courtesy of Seung-hwan Oh in a game they won. They worked five scoreless innings on Tuesday night and following that up with six innings allowing just Oh’s run on Wednesday night.

Molina’s hitting streak

Yadier Molina is currently on a 10 game hitting streak but has just a .300 OBP over that stretch. It is easily one of the worst on base percentages during a hitting streak of that length over the last several years when I went looking, but he has actually done one better. Back in May, he had a 16 game hitting streak where he had a .282 on base percentage.

Wacha continues to stumble

The season started out so promising for Michael Wacha. Through 7 starts he’d gone at least 6 innings and had a 2.74 ERA. Since then the wheels have fallen off with a 8.17 over 6 starts and he’s made it through the fifth inning just once. He allowed 9 hits and a walk over 4 innings on Wednesday that saw him allow 5 runs, though only two of them were earned.

There’s been talk that they’re considering other options, but for now they seem to be content running Wacha out there while Marco Gonzales, Luke Weaver, and Jack Flaherty continue to excel in Memphis.

Mozeliak mentioned during the Q&A during the UCB game that it was a difficult discussion to have with a player, but that’s why he and Mike Matheny are employed by the organization. To make these decisions and have exactly these kinds of discussions.

Molina signs a three year extension through 2020

The St. Louis Cardinals announced today that they have signed catcher Yadier Molina to a 3 year, $60 million extension that will keep him in their uniform through the 2020 season. The new deal will replace his option year next season. While rumors of the deal being finalized spread on Thursday night, both sides maintained that the deal was not yet done prompting quite a bit of hand-wringing as the weekend played out and the Opening Day deadline loomed.

It was a good move for the Cardinals who get to lock up one of their franchise icons and likely enable him to finish his career having spent the entirety of it with the Cardinals.

“I can’t be more happy than I am right now,” said Molina in the press conference on Sunday afternoon. “This is a dream come true. I have always wanted to be here.”

The deal had many moving parts to consider.

At 34 years old, Molina will now be 38 when his contract comes to an end, well past the traditional useful life for a catcher. But Molina has proven anything but traditional at catcher.

The organization also seems to have his heir apparent in Carson Kelly, a consensus top-100 prospect and the best catching prospect in baseball. Kelly will start the season in Triple-A and his advancement is closely tied to Molina’s future.

But the organization has also talked about it’s desire to keep some of it’s core players so that they can finish their careers in St. Louis. It didn’t happen with Albert Pujols. It didn’t happen with Matt Holliday. It seems like it will happen for Yadier Molina. And if I had to choose one of the three, I think the Cardinals got it right.

The deal makes Molina not just the highest paid catcher in baseball, with his $20 million average annual value, but the highest paid Cardinal ever, surpassing Adam Wainwright’s $19.5 million mark from his extension signed before the 2014 season.

As I’ve said while discussing the potential of this deal before, I like the extension even if Molina fails to maintain his offensive production because of the other skills he brings to table that won’t decline. His work ethic, his drive, his ability to read batters and create a game plan. With those, he has a good chance of providing a solid value to the organization through those years.

And if he struggles or succumbs to injury, they have Kelly waiting for an opportunity. Hopefully Molina is pragmatic enough to understand when his backup playing, may be better for the team. I thought it was telling that Mike Matheny mentioned during the press conference a disabled list trip he took in 2004 while Molina was serving as his backup catcher and realized that he opened the door and there was no going back.

As I considered this deal and what it will mean to have Molina potentially finish his career as a Cardinal, I often thought back to five years ago and the negotiations around Albert Pujols’ departure. Because I never legitimately thought that Molina was going to leave. Not just because I feel like Molina is more legacy minded and that his and the Cardinals’ contract wants lined up better, but because the organization is on much steadier footing than it was five years ago. Molina’s deal is a testament that the organization believes that too.

Consider that after the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, Pujols was headed for free agency and a Hall of Fame manager was riding off into retirement. Their top-3 offensive contributors were Lance Berkman (35), Matt Holliday (31), and Albert Pujols (Also 31). Their two best starting pitchers were Kyle Lohse (32) and Chris Carpenter (36) and their closer was Jason Motte (29). All told, that’s an average age of 32 for those key contributors.

Their top-20 prospects list included a number of Cardinals who would go on to provide contributions at the big league level. Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, and Oscar Taveras were all on that list, but they weren’t due for a couple more years. Over the short-term, you could say that the future and the odds of the Cardinals’ returning to the playoffs was bleak.

Compare that to where the Cardinals stand now. Las year their top-3 offensive contributors were Matt Carpenter (30), Aledmys Diaz (25), and Stephen Piscotty (also 25). Their top-2 starting pitchers were Carlos Martinez (24) and Adam Wainwright (33). Their closer was Seung-hwan Oh (33). That’s an average age of 28 for those players.

Their top-20 prospects list is also littered with guys with big league potential. And while you can’t bet on particular prospects, you can bet on depth as there would have to be a lot to go wrong for this current crop of prospects to come up empty in big league contributions.

The future has much more hope in 2017 than it did going into 2012.

After the 2011 World Series, Mozeliak faced a roster and organization in flux. Unlike the Cubs this winter whose offseason strategy was basically: “Don’t break it.”

I think if Mozeliak was honest, the 2012 and the years that followed worked out better than expected. The last thing the organization needed to do was give a franchise record $250 million contract to a 32 year old player coming off three seasons of decline and the worst season of his career. Many owners would have give Pujols whatever he wanted simply out of fear. But they stuck to their guns and in the end, someone else paid up.

In hindsight, that Pujols deal ended up being good for the Cardinals. Many of the nagging injuries that he has struggled with have taken their toll and he can no longer play the field every day like he would have needed to in St. Louis. He is still a contributor on offense, but not in the same way he once was. In a way, both sides have benefited from it.

The fear with this deal is that we will see that same fate with Molina as we watch him get old right in front of our eyes. And while that may be, I’m glad to know the team feels like they have stable footing to offer a deal like that to a player like Molina. (And that they aren’t afraid to spend some cash.)

Column: It’s time for the Cardinals to lay out the Molina succession plan

It was during the 2002 World Series that I first heard anything about Yadier Molina. His older brothers Bengie and Jose were catchers for the Anaheim Angels during the series. During the game, FOX broadcasters Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were talking about the Molina brothers who were all catchers and how Bengie and Jose would say, “You think we’re good? Wait until you see our brother.”

At the time, Yadier was just a 19 year old kid who had wrapped up his second season of professional baseball in the Cardinals’ organization. He’d been drafted a year before in the fourth round by the Cardinals and they were definitely onboard with the hype.

The Major League roster and Yadier’s advancement merged perfectly, perhaps exactly to plan, as their incumbent catcher Mike Matheny was a pending free agent. Matheny, a two-time and defending gold glove winner at that point, was widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. But the organization’s plan was clear to anyone with eyes.

Matheny would mentor the youngest Molina for a season before he left in free agency and Molina became the starter in 2005. Matheny would win his third Gold Glove Award in 2004. He would head to San Francisco in free agency and win his fourth Gold Glove Award in 2005, making it his third in a row.

But on the Cardinals, Yadier Molina began to emerge as one of the greatest catchers of his generation, if not Major League Baseball history. A four-time Platinum Glove Award winner, eight-time Gold Glove winner, seven-time All Star, MVP Candidate, Silver Slugger, you name it. If they award it to a catcher, Molina’s probably won it.

Next season will mark Molina’s 13th as the Cardinals’ starting catcher. He will turn 35 this year in what could be his final season with the team. There is a $15 million mutual option for a 14th season next year that, if Molina has his way, will turn into an extension.

Over his years in St. Louis, because he has been so good, that what I like to call the “cult of Molina” has developed.

After the Cardinals traded Joe Kelly to Boston in 2014, he talked about how there were a number of things he had to learn how to do in Boston because he never learned to do it in St. Louis. Yadi handled it. Reading batters, strategizing at bats, and holding base runners isn’t something pitchers have had to deal with because Yadi’s handled all of that.

I think we see struggles with guys stealing bases now because Cardinals pitchers have never worried about holding guys on and now that his skills have diminished in that area, throwing out just 21% of base runners last year from a career average of 42%, runners can take advantage.

You don’t shake Molina either. Kyle Lohse has spoken about shaking Molina off just a few times and allowing a hit each time. But on the other hand, Marc Rzepczynski was never comfortable with the culture in St. Louis that you don’t shake Molina off and he has pitched better since leaving.

I’m not saying that other catchers don’t put in the preparation, but in many ways Molina is a rare combination of talent, skill, work ethic, and preparation. And as Molina’s career approaches its close though, it’s time to lay out the post-Molina road map.

Last winter the Cardinals signed Brayan Pena in the hopes that he would be the guy who could finally allow the team to give Molina more rest and hopefully extend his career. That didn’t happen as Pena injured his knee slipping on a wet dugout step in spring training and Molina logged more innings behind the plate than ever before.

The Cardinals released Pena a few weeks ago in a roster squeeze which left Carson Kelly as the only catcher on the 40 man roster. John Mozeliak indicated during the winter meetings that they’d like to bring in a veteran backup for Molina this year so that Kelly can continue to develop by playing everyday.

But with Kelly on the cusp, the organization has reached a tipping point. You can only hold off Kelly for so long.

If the organization feels like Kelly is Molina’s future replacement, then they need to lay out the road map for Kelly’s transition to the starting role. Perhaps that’s Kelly serving as Molina’s backup in 2018 before Kelly steps into the starters role in 2019, much like Matheny and Molina’s transition in 2004. But Molina would need to know that he wouldn’t have a role on the team for 2019.

I know what you’re thinking. Molina is the face of the franchise. He’s the rock of the pitching staff. Of anyone, he has to retire a Cardinal.

That’s the reaction I always get when I bring this topic up. Eventually the transition to Molina’s successor will have to happen and we’re at the point where once you identify that successor, you need to move on when the new guy is ready. The organization has built their philosophy on not holding up the future for the sake of sentimentality. I love Molina, but the organization can’t afford to string Kelly along as his backup for multiple years like they did with Tony Cruz.

“Yeah, but Cruz was never a good hitter,” is the reaction I usually get when I bright this up. I’ll admit that he wasn’t great, but he wasn’t horrible either. Cruz hit .282 across three levels of the minors in 2010 and would be hitting .262 in Memphis when he got his first call up to the Majors in 2011. He hit .262 over 38 games in the Majors in 2011 and then followed it up, hitting .254 in 2012. But over his final three seasons with the Cardinals, from 2013 to 2015, his batting average collapsed to just .203.

In my opinion, a big factor in Cruz’s declining performance was playing time. Pitchers were able to get ahead of him and stay ahead of him because he wasn’t getting enough opportunities to learn and adapt at the plate. Whenever he did get a stretch of playing time while Molina was injured, he would usually string together a few excellent games at the plate, perhaps giving a glimpse at what he could have been.

Because of this, ensuring that Kelly gets consistent playing time and doesn’t waste away for too long as a backup is of utmost importance to the future of the Cardinals. If they wait too long, will we see the same struggles that Tony Cruz had?

If Kelly isn’t viewed the successor, then the organization should put him to use. Use him as trade bait or use him as the backup now. The only reason to delay him at this point is to time up the hand off. But that requires actually handing the job off at some point. It’s time to figure out exactly when.

Molina putting “overused” narrative to rest

Every season it seems we’re talking about how much Mike Matheny has been using Yadier Molina. When he slumps or gets injured in the second half, it becomes a talking point to criticize Matheny. Every spring the team pays the fans lip service that they’re looking for ways to rest Molina more, so that he can be around when the team needs him most. And every September he’s still racked up as many innings as the year before.

None more than this year.

And as Molina struggled through June, hitting .222/.281/.283, fans blamed Matheny for overusing the star catcher. But it didn’t slow down.

With 7.33 innings caught per team game in the second half of this season, Molina is setting a career high for second half usage. And it’s not like his first half was a breeze either, clocking in at 7.63 innings caught per team game as his third most usage behind 2015 (7.91) and 2013 (7.71).

Entering play tonight, Molina is 14 1/3 innings away from setting a new career high in innings caught this season. If he starts at least 6 of the final 7 games this year, and there is no reason to think he won’t start all of them, surpassing 1200 innings behind the plate seems like it’ll be a slam dunk.

We know Molina likes to play, but perhaps the most astounding part of it is that he’s doing while being one of the best hitters in baseball in the second half.

Molina’s .358 average is 3rd in baseball among players with more than 200 plate appearances. His 19 doubles stack up 9th. He has a 146 OPS+ in the second half, the second best of his career behind 2012 where he hit .328 with 9 HR and had a 147 OPS+. And Molina still has 7 games to go to surpass it.

Over the full season, Molina has a 106 OPS+, which makes it his most successful offensive campaign since he hit .319 with 12 HR in 2013 and finished third in MVP voting. He leads the team with a .301 batting average, 35 doubles, and 153 hits.

Behind his three standout offensive seasons from 2011 to 2013, Molina is having his best offensive season. The kind of season many of us doubted we’d ever see from Molina after he shed a bunch of weight a couple seasons ago to increase his longevity. At 34. While catching 1,200 innings.

And he’s finishing stronger than ever. He has a .388 batting average over the last four weeks and .436 over the last two weeks.

Is it a fluke? Probably.

But the last time I bet against Molina, saying that he’d never hit double digit home runs again after hitting 14 in 2011, he went and bettered it, hitting 22.

The bottom line is that basically, Yadier Molina is laughing at your idea that he’s “overused.”