And in 2012, the departure of Pujols via free agency to the Los Angeles Angels forced St. Louis is find another source of make opponents fear them.
The Cardinals still had Matt Holliday to fall back on. They hoped that a full season of David Freese would be a part of that puzzle and added Carlos Beltran to the mix in an attempt to replace some of that. All three men performed admirably in that regard, each becoming All-Stars at their respective positions. Holliday would hit .295 with 27 home runs and 102 RBI, Freese would contribute a .293 average, 20 home runs, and 79 RBI, and Beltran would earn his keep with a .269 avergae, a team-high 32 home runs, and 97 RBI. Even Allen Craig stepped up and added 22 dingers an 92 RBI of his own.
All told, their performances helped to also cover the loss of first baseman Lance Berkman, who managed just 32 games in 2012 and is now likely headed toward retirement. This team was by far not wanting for additional offense. Still, none of these men picked up the mantle of leadership that Pujols had left vacant.
That fell to catcher Yadier Molina.
Himself a four-time All-Star, Molina had pretty much been regarded as a defensive wonder prior to 2011. During the Cardinals’ title run last season, the best of the catching Molina brothers, made it known that he could carry a meaningful stick as well. In 2011, he carved out his first .300 season as a hitter, .305 to be exact, and also achieved career-highs in home runs (14), RBI (65), OPS (.814), and WAR (4.7-FanGraphs), all while continuing to play Gold Glove caliber defense.
So naturally, at age 30 and with nearly 1000 games logged behind the plate, Molina would become the true spiritual leader of this club in 2012.
Molina stepped forward even further this past season, reestablishing all of his career highs set just the year prior. Home runs (22), RBI (76), Average (.315), OPS (.874), and WAR (6.5). His fire and leadership with both the pitching staff and now on the offensive side have more than adequately replaced what Pujols brought to the table.
Now, with the Cardinals making another improbable run to the World Series, St. Louis will again be looking for an October hero and a voice to follow. Molina has struggled thus far in the postseason, but the Cardinals know that at a time when they need him most, the resilient warrior behind the plate will step up with the big hit or the big play they need to turn the tide, and the team knows it. This is a team built around the strength of character they have on the field and in the clubhouse and there is no greater example of that than Molina.
In a town where the previous hero refused to be called “The Man”, Yadier Molina is stepping up to be the man.