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Realistic to think Yadier Molina can return Opening Day?

JUPITER, Fla. -- During the St. Louis Cardinals' first workout on Thursday, catcher Yadier Molina looked a little antsy. He drifted around between drills, even crouched behind some of the catchers as they caught bullpen sessions.

With his left thumb still immobilized in a splint, there wasn't much more he could do. When it comes to baseball activities, Molina -- the team's seven-time All-Star -- will be a spectator for nearly the entire spring.

Molina is hopeful to be ready for Opening Day, but the team will map out a more conservative timeline than he would if he were making the call about his return date, according to general manager John Mozeliak.

"I would imagine. He's a competitive guy. He wants to get this moving,” Mozeliak said. "I'm just saying, from a club standpoint, we have to be patient.”

Molina required a second surgical procedure on his thumb in December after the first -- performed immediately after the season -- didn't adequately repair the torn ligament he sustained in a play at the plate last season. He had his cast removed earlier this week, but the team thus far has not set a timetable for getting him to swing a bat or don a catcher's mitt.

Another month of down time before Molina can resume baseball activities -- and then two weeks to prepare for the season -- sounds perfectly reasonable to one medical expert. Michael Hausman, the chief of hand and elbow surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said it's likely that Molina underwent a more complicated procedure the second time he had surgery.

After the ligament fails a second time, the surgeon typically uses a tendon graft to reconstruct the ligament and weave it to the bone, a procedure analogous to what has come to be called Tommy John surgery when it involves a player's elbow. The recovery time from the second procedure, Hausman said, is typically just under three months, which would mean Molina could begin using his thumb again in late March.

"The idea is to get the athlete playing again, so many times they're really pushing the envelope for when it's safe to play,” Hausman said. "The guidelines I'm giving are what I would recommend for my patients. Athletes don't always heed them.”

If the Cardinals can get Molina on board with the conservative approach, there is little reason to worry he won't be ready on Opening Day or shortly thereafter. Hausman said the tendon graft tends to prove sturdier than ligament-repair surgery, so the long-term prognosis is good.

Molina was injured in September but returned for the playoffs, mostly because the Cardinals needed his defensive presence behind the plate. Uncertainty over Molina's return date is part of the reason Mozeliak gave veteran backup Brayan Pena a two-year, $5 million deal. Pena batted .273 last year and is an offensive upgrade over Molina's previous backup, Tony Cruz.