The Battle for St. Louis Cardinals Backup Catcher: Bryan Anderson vs. Tony Cruz

PHOENIX - APRIL 19: Bryan Anderson #16 of the St. Louis Cardinals warms up on the field before the major league baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on April 19, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Pitchers and catchers officially reporting on Saturday marked the beginning of not only Spring Training but the competition for the job of St. Louis Cardinals backup catcher that St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak announced last fall. For the first time since the 2004 season, the Cardinals enter camp set to use a prospect from their farm system as the second-string catcher. Unlike 2004, however, the position will be filled by a good ol' fashioned Spring Training competition pitting prospects Bryan Anderson and Tony Cruz against one another.

As tom s. noted in yesterday's main post, Anderson would not be in contention for the role of Yadier Molina's backup if Tony La Russa were still managing the Cardinals. Shortly after La Russa's retirement, Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch wrote that Anderson "never earned La Russa's confidence" and was leapfrogged by Tony Cruz, who "earned praise as a capable pinch hitter and mature backstop." The negative view of Anderson's defense held by the outgoing manager was not necessarily refuted by the incoming manager earlier this week. As a former roving instructor in the Cardinals' minor league system, Mike Matheny is familiar with Anderson. In a Post-Dispatch article from last week, he discussed Anderson at length, candidly recognizing Anderson's weakness in calling games while also praising the young catcher for his attitude and working to improve.

One of the biggest knocks against him is how he relates to the pitching staff and takes the bull by the horns behind the plate. This isn't real natural for him and he's kind of had to work on that and almost force the issue. But he's made great strides with that.

Given his reputation as a less-than-stellar defensive player, Anderson is in the running for backup catcher largely because of his bat. A left-handed hitter, Anderson turned heads with an OPS of .896 in his debut season with Johnson City in rookie ball at the age of 18. Labeled a hitter at that point, this halo has followed Anderson as he has hit roughly average at every stop in his ascent up the ladder of the Cardinals' farm system. During his time in Springfield and Memphis, Anderson has provided league-average offensive production at the catching position. Here is a look at those numbers:

Year

Team

Level

Age

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

wOBA

wOBA+

2005

JC

RK

18

176

.331

.383

.513

.896

--

--

2006

QC

A

19

431

.302

.377

.417

.794

--

--

2007

SPR

AA

20

430

.299

.350

.389

.739

.339

99

2008

SPR

AA

21

86

.388

.412

.525

.937

.407

115

2008

MEM

AAA

21

275

.281

.367

.379

.746

.343

99

2009

MEM

AAA

22

174

.245

.293

.399

.692

.321

97

2010

MEM

AAA

23

302

.270

.341

.448

.789

.343

99

2011

MEM

AAA

24

378

.281

.357

.409

.766

341

96

After being labeled as "arguably" the National League's top catching prospect in the 2009 Baseball Prospectus, Anderson's numbers took a hit in 2009 due to injury and some wrote him off despite his young age. In 2010 and 2011, Anderson demonstrated that he was still the hitter he was prior to getting hurt. Even on a team full of left-handed hitters and switch-hitters, the prospect of a left-handed hitting backup capable of spelling Molina against righties is an intriguing one.

Tony Cruz was drafted as a third baseman in 2007. Cruz played as much catcher in 2008 as third base and, by 2010, his position was catcher. At 20, Cruz made his pro debut at an older age than Anderson and, with an .817 OPS as his personal best, has never posted a season as gaudy as Anderson's best. That being said, Cruz has also produced at a level roughly on par with the average of his peers at his various stops on the Future Redbirds circuit.

Year

Team

Level

Age

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

wOBA

wOBA+

2007

QC

A

20

215

.284

.340

.423

.763

.364

111

2008

PB

A+

21

378

.279

.316

427

743

.339

107

2009

SPR

AA

22

444

.220

.281

.366

.647

.301

86

2010

PB

A+

23

202

.282

.348

.398

.746

.364

115

2010

SPR

AA

23

175

.279

.356

.461

.817

.367

106

2010

MEM

AAA

23

15

.214

.267

.429

.696

.359

103

2011

MEM

AAA

24

71

.262

.324

.338

.662

.322

91

Anderson made it to St. Louis for his proverbial cup of coffee during the 2010 season and posted a line of .281/.314/.344/.658; or, a wOBA of .293 (91 OPS+) over a mere 35 PA spread out over 15 games. During Spring Training last season, Cruz outlasted Anderson in big-league camp and received the call-up when veteran backup Gerald Laird went down with an injury. Filling in for Laird, Cruz posted a solid .262/.324/.338/.662 line that equated a .308 wOBA (97 wOBA+) over just 71 PA in 38 games played. Cups of coffee in The Show aren't the most reliable indicators of future success, so let us turn to ZIPS to give us a fuller picture of what 2012 might hold for Anderson and Cruz.

Player

AB

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

OPS+

Anderson

355

.246

.308

.358

666

82

Cruz

346

.237

.287

.352

.655

74


Unfortunately, I can't find any projections for either of these players other than ZIPS. Bill James and PECOTA don't seem to have bothered projecting either of the main competitors for the Cardinals' backup catcher. ZIPS foresees both to be fair backup catchers even if their numbers are underwhelming. (If you don't believe me, check out the numbers from the non-Eli Marrero backup catchers during the La Russa/Dunan era of 1996-2011.)

In last week's Post-Dispatch article on Anderson and the backup catcher position, Matheny noted that he was looking for conscientiousness and understanding of the catching position as well as the ability to catch, throw, and call a game. It will be interesting to see how Matheny weighs these factors in deciding whether Anderson or Cruz will break camp as the backup catcher. No matter his decision, the competition between two products of the farm system signals a philosophical shift in St. Louis in regards to the position.
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