By and large, the St. Louis Cardinals have been defined not by glaring roster holes but by general adequacy that could use improvement but which is fairly easy at which to squint and justify. Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, and Lars Nootbaar could use more depth behind them, but it could be fine. Move Tommy Edman to shortstop on a full-time basis and Nolan Gorman or Brendan Donovan could hold down the fort at second base. A collection of starting pitchers on the wrong side of thirty plus an injury-prone Jack Flaherty could hold up throughout a season. This was not the case when it came to the catcher position.
Long-time Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras has reportedly agreed to a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, first reported by The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, and he will be replacing a straight-up vacancy on the Cardinals’ roster. The starting catcher role, of course, has been filled by Yadier Molina since before I, person older than all but three players on the Cardinals roster, could legally drive a car. But it was, sentiment aside, easily the biggest weakness on the Cardinals roster last season, and even if Yadier Molina was dragging down the lineup with his 51 wRC+ and solid-but-no-longer-so-transcendent-you-can-completely-ignore-the-offense defensive acumen, it’s not as though Andrew Knizner, with a 79 wRC+ and terrible defensive numbers, and Ivan Herrera, overwhelmed in his brief cameos in the big leagues, were going to represent any sort of material upgrade. Willson Contreras does.
While Yadier Molina did have a brief heyday as a legitimately feared MLB hitter, Willson Contreras has been considerably better over the course of his career. In his seven MLB seasons, Contreras has been an above-average hitter in each of them, which in turn made him a well above-average hitter by the standards of a catcher. In sharp contrast to Molina, who was 15% worse than the average MLB hitter over the last half-decade, Willson Contreras was 16% better than average. Among catchers with at least 1,000 plate appearances in that time, only Will Smith was materially better at the plate; Mitch Garver, Yasmani Grandal, and J.T. Realmuto were incrementally better (21%, 18%, and 18% above average, respectively).
Tying Willson Contreras on the wRC+ catcher leaderboards was Sean Murphy, also widely reported to be available this off-season. While Murphy is two years younger and the superior fielder, that he is still under team control with the Oakland Athletics for the next three seasons meant that he would likely come at a premium for prospects. Willson Contreras costs the money (and a compensatory pick which, while not nothing, is worth far less and comes with far more uncertainty than the hypothetical Murphy price) that fans have spent years, often rightfully, imploring Bill DeWitt Jr. spend to make his team better. For all of the DEWALLET hoots and hollers of the last decade, this is a case of the team spending rather than finding the cheapest possible option. I might have preferred Sean Murphy or even Alejandro Kirk, but signing Contreras appears to be a matter of preference rather than a matter of cutting financial corners.
In terms of free agents, Contreras is leaps and bounds ahead of Christian Vázquez, an adequate-at-best backstop, and anyone else available on the market. Contreras ranked 10th on FanGraphs’s list of the top free agents of this off-season, which marks the first time since 2016-17 that the Cardinals signed a top-ten free agent. In that case, it was also a former Chicago Cub–Dexter Fowler. But while Fowler was a case of the Cardinals buying high–2016 was by far the best season of Fowler’s career, over a full Win Above Replacement more than any other season he had ever had–Contreras has been consistently above-average, if not consistently a superstar. Though at a position as bare as catcher is for the Cardinals, this may feel like a superstar.
Typically, when evaluating players, the valuation metrics are fairly similar across websites, but in terms of Contreras, there is quite a bit of variance. Per Baseball Prospectus, Contreras has been worth 12.6 WARP for his career. FanGraphs pegs him for 15.5 fWAR. And Baseball Reference gives him 20.8 bWAR. With most positions, splitting the difference is usually a fair enough solution, but there is a meaningful and material reason for this with regards to catchers–pitch framing. And while Willson Contreras is fairly good at most elements of catching–he throws out a decent number of base runners, he doesn’t generally allow an egregious number of passed balls (though he did lead the league with seven last year), and he seems like a broadly competent handler of a pitching staff–one glaring exception is pitch framing. While he is not Andrew Knizner level bad, he has been below-average at stealing strike calls for pitchers in the five seasons of his career in which he has been a full-time starting catcher (2020 notwithstanding). There are some signs he has gotten better–his 2021 and 2022 numbers are quite a bit less grotesque than 2018 and 2019–but the laws of defensive metric stabilization suggests the answer is probably somewhere in between.
But baseball rules changes, which are all the rage these days (Universal designated hitters! Shift bans! Bigger bases!), might limit the harm of Contreras’s primary defensive shortcoming–the potential implementation of an automatic strike zone. A so-called “robot ump” would render pitch framing a cute but effectively useless skill and would make Contreras more valuable than ever. Although a robo-zone is almost certainly not going to be rushed into implementation for 2023, it is very much on the table going forward. There were no rule changes on the horizon that were going to render Dexter Fowler a better player in St. Louis–there is with Contreras.
Depending on the length of the contract, which has yet to be disclosed, the Cardinals could potentially find themselves in a situation where Contreras has to move to a different position–while he is a good enough hitter that he could survive at first base (Paul Goldschmidt’s contract ends sooner than you think it does) or designated hitter, he would certainly be a much less valuable player there. But that’s ultimately a problem for tomorrow (and the Cardinals still employ a 22 year-old recent top prospect in Ivan Herrera at the position), and even if the automatic strike zone never comes, a 2-3 win catcher (as FanGraphs seems to think he is, even when accounting for his framing shortcomings) is a major improvement for a Cardinals team that has been struggling with catcher production for years.