Yadier Molina batting cleanup for the St. Louis Cardinals says a lot both about him and the team as a whole. Both aren’t good things.
In a change from recent years, the lineups that manager Mike Shildt has decided to employ at the start of the season have changed earlier than usual. The top three for the St. Louis Cardinals has stayed the same with Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, and Nolan Arenado, but beyond that there have been changes.
In a perfect world, 2021 will be the year that Paul DeJong takes a leap forward for the Cardinals and steps up to be the cleanup hitter this team needs, that hasn’t been the case. Batting just .128 right now with a .559 OPS, DeJong has looked awful on both sides of the ball since the start of the 2021 season.
Shildt had a quick hook on DeJong, pulling him from the cleanup spot and replacing him with none other than the 38-year-old Yadier Molina. Molina, who will appear in his 2,000th career game on Wednesday, has proven many people (myself included) wrong to start the season.
As happens with any player nearing 40 (especially catchers), Molina’s offensive production has declined over the past few years. Part of this stemmed from Molina continually coming in lighter and lighter to take strain off his knees behind the plate.
This year, however, Adam Wainwright mentioned that Molina is “a little heavier than he was last year,” and the difference is clear.
At the time of writing, Molina is batting .353 with a .998 OPS and two homers over his first 34 at-bats. Rather than burying him in the end of the lineup, Shildt has capitalized this by using him as protection for Nolan Arenado.
In his career, Molina has hit cleanup in just 33 games, with 2021 being the first time he’s hit cleanup since 2017. Wednesday will be his third time hitting in that spot this season and the most he’s ever hit cleanup in one year was seven times in 2005. Will he break that record this year?
While it’d make sense to put either Molina or Dylan Carlson in the second spot and shift Arenado and Goldy one spot back, Molina batting cleanup is the best choice right now. Molina has been the most clutch Cardinal in years past, even when his overall offensive numbers have slid. Combining Molina’s situational hitting skill with his hot streak really does make him the perfect cleanup man right now.
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Molina’s return was not a guarantee this offseason and he waited until late January to sign. Nobody knows how backup Andrew Knizner would be hitting had Yadi chose to go elsewhere, but the odds that he could replicate Molina’s current performance are low.
The unfortunate consequence of Molina hitting so well is that Knizner hasn’t had playing time, but getting him playing time isn’t a high priority when Molina is hitting like this.
While Molina hitting cleanup is the best option right now, it does say something about the depth of the Cardinals’ lineup; or at least how it is being deployed. As I mentioned earlier, putting another player second and moving the middle two bats down to third and fourth in the order would appear to be the best long-term solution to the cleanup spot.
While Nolan Arenado has said that he is adjusting well to batting third, he’s been primarily a cleanup man in Colorado. Goldy has been a primary third hitter in his career as well. I’m all for continuing to experiment with lineups, but the way it is currently set up makes the lineup look way thinner than it could with Molina or Carlson at second.
The Cardinals are still waiting for someone to step up in the outfield other than Carlson. For the time being, Molina is the best choice for cleanup even though nobody knows how he’s still so productive.