Even on a five-year, $75 million dollar contract, even after finishing second to Buster Posey in total wins above replacement among catchers (8.0 to 6.5), Yadier Molina has one glaring flaw.
Well, two, and the other one is hideous neck tattoos.
The one I'm particularly thinking of is that he is not invincible. Pretty close, as catchers come; he's one of only 5 catchers with more than 3,000 PAs since 2006. But he's sadly mortal.
And the Cardinals' system is particularly poorly equipped to handle this particular frailty. The best catching prospects in the system are very young and at the lowest level of the system. 19-year-old, 2012 draftee Steve Bean split the year between instructional league in Jupiter and the Appalachian League affiliate in Johnson City; he is probably 4-5 years away. 20-year-old Adam Ehrlich similarly split his 2012 season between those two lowest levels of the system. Juan Castillo and Jesus Montero are names who may be worth watching but probably won't rank on prospect lists soon; they spent most of 2012 at Quad Cities and Batavia respectively, so they're pretty far from ready.
At the higher levels of the system, the catching depth is downright depressing. Long-time prospect Bryan Anderson filed for free agency after taking exactly 49 PAs as a major league ballplayer and seeing his stock tank heavily after putting up a .289 wOBA at Memphis. The decidedly-milquetoast Audry Perez served as primary back-up for the Texas League champion Springfield Cardinals. Pretend-catcher Steve Hill and non-prospect Luis de la Cruz followed Anderson into free agency. Other catchers in the system like Nick Derba and Geoff Klein sport terribly weak bats.
One of the lone lights in the system, Cody Stanley, suffered a serious setback in terms of his prospecthood after being suspended for much of the season for PED use. He managed to play part of a season in Palm Beach and made up for some of his lost time by hitting TERRIBLY in the Arizona Fall League. He'll have to play better in 2013 to make it back onto the prospect radar as anything but the best among bad options.
So, the Cardinals in 2013 can look forward to a Gold Glove, MVP-caliber catcher starting in MLB, a pretty ordinary backup catcher in Tony Cruz, and . . . a pretty scary vacuum of major league ready (or even major league close) talent in the event of injury to either one.
That leaves the Cardinals in a weird spot. It's not worth trading major talent to get a better backup catcher who will still probably only get 150 PAs. It's hard to give up much of value for the sake of a mere contingency plan.
On the other hand, having a system positively bereft of catching talent above short-season ball is pretty ugly and could lead to some real issues down the line. We're one injury away from splitting major league catching duties between Tony Cruz and Audry Perez. If that didn't make you spit your morning coffee out, I don't know what will.
Option 1: Do nothing. This is not necessarily a terrible plan. The Cardinals are adequately endowed with really good prospects such that, in the event of catastrophe, they could swing a costly but effective trade for catching talent. I would guess the front office has scouted some leading trade targets in the catching world a little more and thought a little more about what their home teams would require for just this contingency. The obvious downside to this tack is that we'll be stuck with whatever's available, we'll pay an exorbitant markup for being desperate, and we'll be hurting if it takes long to negotiate mid-season.
Option 2: Patch job. Take a look at what finds its way to us without much effort. Look at catchers left unprotected for Rule 5, especially in minor league rounds. Look at waiver wire gets and minor league free agents. The quality here is likely to be poor, but especially as applied to the mid- to high-ends of the system, catchers don't have to be great to be an improvement.
Option 3: Minor league trades. Here's the fun part. We have a ton of B-/C+ pitchers at the back end of the system. So much so, we're rapidly running out of place for them. There are some clubs out there with some B-/C+ catchers in their systems. Prospect-for-prospect trades have become something of a lost art, but here's a terrific opportunity to exploit them. Probably nobody that we get in these depth trades is going to be future starter material, but the point is to get deeper.
I was going to highlight the Padres' Austin Hedges as a possible target since he was blocked by Yasmani Grandal, but then Grandal had to get himself suspended 50 games for PEDs. Grandal is coming back long before Hedges should be starting games, but the suspension may leave enough questions in San Diego about how much of Grandal's performance was chemically assisted. That concern may keep them from trading away catching depth.
The Yankees have a wealth of catching prospects. We won't pay the freight for top prospect Gary Sanchez, but he's 18 anyway. Their secondary catching prospects J.R. Murphy or Austin Romine might fit the C+, mid-minors description we're looking for.And I think the Yankees wouldn't mind improving their stock of pitching prospects close to the majors.
Anyway, I do not profess to be adequately aware of other team's prospects to propose a serious trade for any of these guys. My more serious point is that the underappreciated prospect-for-prospect deal seems like an excellent way to swap our outstanding pitching depth to fix our atrocious catching depth. I suspect that the club would still be looking at patch job options as well and scouting other teams for major league catching, should a need suddenly arise. These options are not exclusive. But in terms of pressing roster problems to address in the off-season, this is a very quiet, but very serious one. I hope the front office is thinking very hard about it and entertaining serious options.