The Milwaukee Brewers looked so out-of-sync and vulnerable in losing four straight games to the Philadelphia Phillies at home this week, it's only natural that St. Louis and Cincinnati would aspire to reach the All-Star break in first place.
They're certainly not going to arrive in one piece.
Injuries have a way of mucking up the storyline and altering the conventional wisdom in sports, but Thursday unfolded in an especially chaotic way in the National League Central. The carnage began when the Cardinals lost catcher Yadier Molina for 8-12 weeks with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Shortly thereafter, the Reds announced that second baseman Brandon Phillips will miss six weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb.
Phillips' absence, coupled with the loss of Joey Votto to the DL, will put an additional crimp in a Reds offense that has had trouble getting much traction. Even though his .701 OPS this season is the lowest of his 8 ½-year run with Cincinnati, Phillips has hit second, third and fourth in the Reds' lineup and made a cameo appearance in the fifth spot. He's averaged 150 games a season since his arrival in Cincinnati in 2006, and he's a four-time Gold Glove Award winner with an aggregate defensive runs saved of plus-55 since 2007.
But the loss of Phillips still pales in comparison to the impact and potential fallout of Molina's injury in St. Louis.
The numbers and Molina's settling influence behind the plate combine to place him near the top of baseball's "most indispensible player" list. Since 2011, Molina leads big-league catchers in WAR (17.5) and batting average (.309) and ranks second to Buster Posey with an .827 OPS. During that span, the Cardinals have a 275-203 record (for a .575 winning percentage) when he starts and a 50-51 mark (.495) when he doesn't.
As the Elias Sports Bureau notes, the Cardinals have a staff ERA of 3.53 with Molina and 3.81 without him over the past five seasons. They've erased 40.9 percent of opposing base stealers during that time frame, compared to 31.9 percent with all their non-Molina catchers.
So when Molina stood at his locker at Busch Stadium on Thursday and told reporters that he "almost cried" when he learned the extent of his injury, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, his teammates and the front office all could relate.
"It's the equivalent of losing Adam Wainwright," said an American League scout. "Yadi is one guy in the lineup, but this affects 12 guys on the pitching staff. Tony Cruz is a great backup and I guarantee you he's learned a ton from Yadi just by osmosis. But there's no way he can replace Yadi offensively, and Yadi is by far the best defensive catcher in all of baseball. It's going to be a challenge."
Like several of his front-office peers, St. Louis GM John Mozeliak is aiming at a moving target in his quest to make upgrades by the July 31 deadline. There was an on-line frenzy this week over the possibility of a Jake Peavy-to-St. Louis trade. But the reality is, the Cardinals' rotation is second in the National League with a 3.20 ERA and a .238 batting average against, and Joe Kelly should give the team a lift when he returns from a hamstring injury Friday against the Brewers. The Cardinals will also have a better handle after the All-Star break whether Michael Wacha can return from a stress reaction in his right shoulder and help them in August and September.
Of late, Mozeliak has given just as much thought to upgrading an offense that ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored. But where do the Cardinals make changes? They're awash in outfielders, and first baseman Matt Adams and shortstop Jhonny Peralta aren't going anywhere. One possible scenario involves shifting Matt Carpenter to second base and making a run at, say, Chase Headley, to play third. The Cardinals could also leave Carpenter at third and try to add a second baseman. But Kolten Wong is 6-for-14 with three homers since his return from the disabled list last weekend, so maybe he's part of the solution at second.
Asked about the team's next course of action in an email exchange, Mozeliak replied, "We have time to determine our next step." But Mozeliak will almost certainly be on the lookout for a veteran catcher to help take some pressure off Cruz. There aren't an abundance of options.
A.J. Pierzynski, just designated for assignment by Boston, is not on the Cardinals' radar, according to a baseball source. Although the Red Sox probably aren't keen on the idea of moving David Ross after dumping Pierzynski (and irritating free-agent-to-be Jon Lester in the process), one NL scout thinks Ross would be an ideal fit in St. Louis.
"He won't hit much and he can't catch every day, but he handles pitchers as good as anybody in the major leagues," the scout said. "That's who I would go after in a heartbeat."
John Buck, cut loose by Seattle earlier this week, is a possibility. Carlos Ruiz is on the disabled list with a concussion and has more than $20 million left on his contract with the Phillies, so he's not an option. Kurt Suzuki would be a wonderful fit, but one baseball source said the Twins aren't ready to trade him "just yet." Suzuki is also an American League All-Star who's hitting .303 with a 2.1 WAR this season, so it wouldn't be out of line for the Twins to ask for a Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk from St. Louis' ample supply of outfield prospects. Good luck with that.
The Cardinals aren't the only NL Central team in shopping mode. Cincinnati was already in need of a left-field upgrade before Votto and Phillips went down and further weakened the lineup. Pittsburgh could use a veteran starter, and Milwaukee made the decision Thursday to shift Marco Estrada to the bullpen and summon top prospect Jimmy Nelson from Triple-A Nashville, where he was 10-2 with a 1.46 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 111 innings. Brewers GM Doug Melvin has maintained that he has no plans to trade for another starter, but he's likely to at least try and fortify the bullpen for the stretch run.
That's where things stand at the moment. But in a tightly-bunched Central, the four contenders know they're just an awkward slide, a pulled hamstring or an achy elbow away from seeing their best-laid plans altered. For the division's general managers, the three weeks leading up to the trade deadline will be a waiting game and a chess match. For the players, it's a war of attrition.