Before his offensive production jumped several levels in the late-aughts and into the early-2010s, an oft-cited claim from manager Tony La Russa about St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was that he could go hitless for the season and still be valuable to the team because of his defensive production. This was almost certainly hyperbole (though some Chicago White Sox fans might be inclined to question that after last season), but in his final season, Yadier Molina really started to put that theory to the test.
It hardly seems worth belaboring the point too much, but Yadier Molina was positively awful at the plate last season. Despite decent defensive metrics–his Gold Glove nomination was a perfectly reasonable one–he was not among the fifty most valuable catchers in baseball last season. Among the 37 catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, only Cleveland Guardians backstop Austin Hedges was worse at the plate than Molina’s 51 wRC+. Unlike Albert Pujols, whose retirement tour proved to be an inspiring coda to a career that had spent a decade-plus in rapid decline, Molina’s swan song was often ugly. But because he’s a guaranteed future Cardinals and a likely future baseball Hall of Famer, he got the chance to depart on his own terms. But ultimately, what the Cardinals now have is perhaps the single most obvious, easy-to-fill hole in terms of year-to-year production that they have had since 2013 Pete Kozma.
There isn’t a catcher on the 2022-23 free agent market anywhere near as exciting as the top outfielder (Aaron Judge), the top pitchers (Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander), nor the top shortstops (Carlos Correa, Trea Turner), but the upgrade that any competent catcher might represent is massive. Trea Turner, for instance, is an exceptional talent, but he only represents a 1.2 projected Wins Above Replacement (by Steamer) upgrade because the guy who played shortstop for most of 2022, Tommy Edman, is himself a really good player (yes, Edman can play second base, but so can the likes of Brendan Donovan or Nolan Gorman). This doesn’t mean the Cardinals shouldn’t pursue high-end talent, but if they don’t also pursue relatively inexpensive players who are enormous upgrades, they not only are committing malpractice, but they aren’t even being true to the version of themselves that those of us who like to complain about payroll imagine them to be.
With Molina’s retirement, there are two catchers on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster–Andrew Knizner, who was Molina’s predominant backup last season (and actually had 23 more plate appearances in 2022), and Ivan Herrera, a hyped 22 year-old who spent most of last season with the Memphis Redbirds. Even if the Cardinals decided they were comfortable with Knizner and Herrera being their catching duo for 2023, the addition of some other catcher somewhere on the 40-man roster is likely, but more to the point, rolling with Knizner and Herrera is extremely unlikely, and the primary reason is because of Knizner. Knizner, despite a relatively low 553 career plate appearances, is now eligible for salary arbitration–in theory, this means he would still be underpaid relative to his free market value, but coming off of four consecutive sub-Replacement Level seasons, combining underwhelming offense with dreadful pitch framing, it’s fair to wonder just how much Knizner could command beyond a minor league deal.
On Monday, FanGraphs published their annual list of the top 50 MLB free agents for this off-season, and three catchers made the list–Willson Contreras of the Chicago Cubs, Omar Narváez of the Milwaukee Brewers, and Christian Vázquez, most recently of the Houston Astros. Of this trio, Contreras is by far the most exciting candidate–the three-time All-Star has been an above-average hitter in six of his seven MLB seasons (and each of the last four) and last season he collected 22 home runs for a rebuilding Cubs team that still happily extended to him a qualifying offer. The question with Contreras, however, has always been his defense–he has been among the worst pitch framers in baseball for years, and although this may soon be rendered irrelevant by the potential implementation of robot umpires calling balls and strikes, this would still be a calculated gamble. Contreras is a good enough hitter to credibly serve as a designated hitter, but then the Cardinals would still be in need of a catcher.
Christian Vázquez has come up a lot lately in media speculation, which makes sense–he is essentially the Steven Matz of catching free agents, in that he is perfectly competent and not exciting and is just expensive enough to prohibit the Cardinals from trying to improve at his position for the foreseeable future. Vázquez, a 32 year-old from Puerto Rico who is nicknamed “Mini Yadi”, is probably best compared to late-2010s Yadier Molina–he doesn’t hit nearly well enough to be the credible MVP candidate that Molina was in the earlier part of the decade, but he’s generally competent (although his career wRC+ of 84 is sure to terrify anyone taking a cursory look at the free agent market, it should be noted that over the last four seasons, Vázquez stands at a far more cromulent 95 wRC+), but his defense has received generally high marks. As a slightly older free agent, Ben Clemens projects Vázquez to receive a two-year contract, which in theory would make him a steady bridge to Ivan Herrera. Omar Narváez has received less attention than Vázquez in terms of fit to the Cardinals, but the 30 year-old could be an interesting fit alongside Herrera by virtue of his left-handed bat–although his offense was abysmal in 2022 (and also in 2020, though I’m far less inclined to worry about an off 126 plate appearances in empty stadiums), he has been a plus hitter throughout his career and his defense has steadily improved over time. Over his career, Narváez has been considerably better at the plate against righties than lefties, so a platoon of sorts with Herrera could be in his best interest anyway.
Despite his framing shortcomings, it’s hard to deny that Contreras is the best of the free agent lot at catcher, but if you assume a finite budget, it’s also fair to prefer the Cardinals take a flyer on a cheaper option so that they can also find improvements, say, in the outfield. It is also, because this is the Cardinals, fair to wonder if the organization sees a trade as their best route to filling a hole, as they have done when they felt compelled to acquire a big bat and thus traded for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. And there are certainly some options there.
Oakland Athletics catcher Sean Murphy, who is becoming arbitration eligible for the first time this off-season, is an intriguing option. The 2021 American League Gold Glove winner, who just turned 28, has been league-average or better by wRC+ in each of his four MLB seasons, including a 122 mark in 2022 that helped him become, by FanGraphs WAR (i.e. the version of WAR that includes pitch framing), the third-most valuable catcher in baseball last season. It is unlikely that J.T. Realmuto or Adley Rutschman become available this off-season, so it’s hard to fathom a bigger potential upgrade behind the plate than Murphy. Of course, when it comes to a trade, one has to then worry about giving up something other than money, and the Athletics will want some prospects. Any Cardinals fan who remembers trades with Oakland in the aughts knows full well that those prospects can turn into Brett Wallace, but they can also turn into Dan Haren.
The Athletics are motivated sellers in the sense that they clearly aren’t trying to compete, or even trying to stay in Oakland (yes, a part of me is squeamish about participating in such a transparently gross fire sale designed to repulse fans and get billionaire capes to say that Oakland abandoned their team, but also, somebody’s gonna take advantage of the situation so it might as well be the team I like). The Toronto Blue Jays are motivated sellers in a completely different way–they see themselves, rightfully, as real contenders, but they also have a surplus of good young catchers. That’s hardly a bad thing, but optimally, they would like to convert one of their extra catchers into somebody who can fill a void elsewhere. There is Gabriel Moreno, the organization’s top prospect who was quite productive in 73 plate appearances last season–it seems more likely that if traded, Moreno would be a key piece in acquiring an existing MLB star rather than being sent off to start somewhere right away. Danny Jansen, at 27, had a superb 2022 season, with a 140 wRC+ (and peripheral statistics which suggest that, if anything, he got a little bit unlucky) and good defense–he will be a free agent after the 2024 season. But the name that should particularly excite Cardinals fans is Alejandro Kirk, 24 years and 4 days old and coming off his first full-time MLB season, in which he was named an All-Star, walked more often than he struck out, and was a good defensive backstop. Because of the presence of Danny Jansen, he played quite a bit of DH, which is a bit of a glass-half-full-or-empty situation–on one hand, the Blue Jays saw another catcher as his defensive superior, but on the other hand, a really good offensive team saw a guy capable of catching as also an indispensable bat. This is quite a bit different than Yadier Molina.
Alejandro Kirk does not become a free agent until after the 2026 season, but if they truly believe that Gabriel Moreno is their future, he might be disposable–ride primarily with Danny Jansen for a couple years and then let Moreno take over. There seem to be questions about Kirk’s long-term viability at catcher, which seems to be based primarily on his physical shape–he is 5’8″ and 265 pounds. But it’s not as though he has some long, lingering history of injuries, and even if his physique means he can’t play until he’s 40, the Cardinals would not be acquiring him to do so–they would be acquiring him, fundamentally, to be their catcher until he’s 27 years old and then reaches free agency. When Alejandro Kirk rumors started to spread late last week, a name frequently mentioned as a potential target for the Blue Jays was Lars Nootbaar, and while Nootbaar emerged last season as a viable MLB outfielder beyond merely being a meme, the idea of holding on tight to a 25 year-old corner outfielder with a 118 career wRC+ in 471 plate appearances rather than pursuing a 24 year-old catcher with a career 124 wRC+ in 755 plate appearances seems to be a transaction viewed through Cardinal-colored glasses. Kirk would probably cost more than Nootbaar, and to be clear there is eventually a limit to what the Cardinals should be willing to give up, but that should be up to the Blue Jays to decide.
Willson Contreras, Sean Murphy, or one of the Blue Jays catchers (likely Alejandro Kirk) would constitute a splash of an acquisition. Omar Narváez or Christian Vázquez could be acceptable if indeed Ivan Herrera is worthy of his hype (on paper, the Cardinals should have a better idea of this than I do). If the Cardinals enter 2023 with Andrew Knizner and Ivan Herrera as their catchers, I can only assume the front office spent the entire offseason on vacation, because there are golden opportunities everywhere for substantial improvement at a position of need, and for the first time in a generation, upgrading at catcher is a viable possibility for the Cardinals this off-season.