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Injuries to Molina, Phillips will make big impact in NL Central race

Brandon Phillips hurt his thumb diving for a groundball on Wednesday and will miss at least the next six weeks after undergoing surgery on Thursday. Photo:

Brandon Phillips hurt his thumb diving for a groundball on Wednesday and will miss at least the next six weeks after undergoing surgery on Thursday.

Two streaking NL Central contenders got some bad injury news on Thursday, as both Yadier Molina and Brandon Phillips could miss the rest of the regular season due to torn thumb ligaments suffered on Wednesday. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak announced that Molina’s rehab for his right thumb is expected to take anywhere from eight to 12 weeks, putting his earliest return in early September. Phillips, who is having surgery on his left thumb, is expected to be sidelined for a minimum of six weeks. Worse for St. Louis and Cincinnati, those twin blows come just as the division race had started to heat up, with Phillips’ Reds within 2 1/2 games of the slumping first-place Brewers, and Molina’s Cardinals within 1 1/2 games.

We saw a similar pair of thumb injuries earlier this year when Josh Hamilton and Bryce Harper both tore the ulnar collateral ligaments in their left thumbs on slides in April. Both required surgery: Hamilton was out for 55 days, one shy of eight weeks, and Harper was out for 65 days, two more than nine weeks. That suggests Molina, who also hurt his thumb sliding, and Phillips, who hurt his making a diving play in the field, should be able to return for the stretch run. However, their teams will still be without them for the bulk of the second half and may be forced to look outside their respective organizations for a replacement. What's more, with only three weeks left until the trade deadline, the Cardinals and Reds won't have long to find fill-ins.

There’s little doubt the Molina injury will have the greater impact. Molina is simply the better player on both sides of the ball, and though this has been his weakest season at the plate since 2010, he was still out-hitting Phillips comfortably despite playing in a less-friendly home ballpark, posting a .287/.341/.409 (109 OPS+) line to Phillips’ .272/.308/.392 (94 OPS+). The Cardinals also have fewer in-house options to replace Molina. The only other man to catch a game for the Cardinals this season has been 27-year-old Tony Cruz, a career .238/.282/.326 hitter who has made all of 59 plate appearances this year, while their Triple-A catching duties have been split between 28-year-old Ed Easley and 25-year-old Audry Perez. Of that lot, Easley, a first-round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2007, might be the most viable replacement, given his career .296/.359/.431 batting line in Triple-A (inflated by a season in Reno last year).

Cheap veteran stop-gaps for the Cardinals could include the recently designated-for-assignment A.J Pierzynski and John Buck, though neither has done anything to recommend their continued employment this season. The same could be said for Yadier’s brother Jose, who is signed through 2015 with the Rays and has made Pierzynski and Buck look like Mike Piazza at the plate this season. The trade market, meanwhile, may yield the likes of Kurt Suzuki and Geovany Soto, both of whom are on one-year contracts. Ironically enough, Soto is close to making his season debut for the Rangers after missing the first half with a torn meniscus in his right knee. The Cardinals likely wouldn’t be interested in a player on a multi-year contract such as Carlos Ruiz, however. St. Louis certainly has the farm system to acquire anyone they want, but, as important as Molina is, he’s also just 31 and signed through 2017 with an option for 2018, so don’t expect Mozeliak to overreact here.

The Reds, meanwhile, have switch-hitter Ramon Santiago and lefty Skip Schumaker available for a potential platoon at second base in Phillips’ stead. Both are lousy hitters, and Schumaker, despite serving as Phillips’ primary backup thus far this season, is a lousy second baseman, as well. Still, the pair should keep the Reds from falling below replacement at the vacated position, which is a danger the Cardinals face with their in-house options. Given Phillips’ continuing decline, this injury might have provided the Reds an opportunity to make a meaningful upgrade at second base for beyond this season.

Unfortunately for the Reds, Phillips’ contract, which calls for him to receive another $39 million over the next three years, will likely prevent that. That strikes the likes of Chase Utley, Daniel Murphy, Gordon Beckham and Aaron Hill (who has been awful this season, anyway) from their shopping list, as all are under control beyond this season. One possible option: Displaced Mariners prospect Nick Franklin, who remains compelling because of his ability to play both middle infield positions.

Of course, while the Phillips injury may not hurt the Reds quite as much as the Molina injury will hurt St. Louis, the fact that Phillips will join Joey Votto (oblique strain) on the disabled list has to create a significant feeling of panic in Cincinnati. (For now, we’ll treat the strained patellar tendon that forced Homer Bailey to leave his Thursday start early as incidental, as the Reds say they think he’ll make his next start, but stay tuned). The Reds are not alone, however. Molina joins Michael Wacha on the St. Louis DL, and the Pirates, who would seem to benefit from today’s news, lost intended ace Gerrit Cole to a lat strain earlier this week just as they were about to get back 2013 ace Francisco Liriano.

This has been a brutal week for contenders in terms of injuries. On Wednesday, the Yankees, still clinging to contender status, lost Masahiro Tanaka to a still-to-be-determined elbow injury and Carlos Beltran to a broken nose and concussion suffered when a ball he hit in batting practice rebounded back into his face. The Blue Jays lost Edwin Encarnacion to a quad strain on Monday, then on Wednesday lost Adam Lind for two months to a broken right foot and learned that Jose Reyes has been playing with a bad throwing shoulder. The Dodgers lost Josh Beckett to a hip impingement on Tuesday. The Angels put C.J. Wilson on the disabled list with a sprained ankle on Thursday. The Royals, who are just a game and a half out in the AL wild-card race, lost Jason Vargas to an appendectomy on Wednesday and are monitoring Alex Gordon’s sprained wrist, which has already led to him bowing out of the All-Star Game.

All of that could lead to increased competition for reinforcements heading toward the trading deadline. As for the NL Central race, the team these injuries could impact the most could be the Brewers, who have lost nine of their last 10, including their last four to the lowly Phillies, and couldn’t have asked for a better time for their main rivals to suffer such significant losses. Still, even without Molina, Phillips, Cole and Votto, that division should remain the most compelling in baseball in the second half.

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