Faced with two or more months of Yadilessness in the midst of what's sure to be a challenging divisional race, the Cardinals have three options: Stick with what they have, trade for another catcher, or pick up the recently DFA'd John Buck (it has been implied that the Cardinals are not considering the also recently deposed AJ Pierzynski).
One name that has popped up in several places is Kurt Suzuki:
Grant Brisbee suggested it here, and
Best trade target for Cardinals is Kurt Suzuki of the Twins because of short term deal— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) July 10, 2014
@cardinals Just stay away from Pierzynski. Call Minnesota. Suzuki would be a great fit. I'm not terrified of Cruz for a while either.— Will Leitch (@williamfleitch) July 10, 2014
I also found Suzuki one of the most appealing players on the lists bandied-about in the wake of Yadi's injury (one such list is included in Bernie Miklasz' column here)
For the Cardinals to trade for a catcher to fill-in for Yadi during his absence, he would likely need to be cheap to obtain, better than any internal options, and better than John Buck. Let's see if Suzuki fits the bill. Now 30, the right-handed Suzuki was a solid to good catcher for the Oakland A's from 2007-2011. He played for the Nationals, then the A's again for parts of the last two years, and then was signed last off-season to play for the Twins. After a strong first half of the season, during which he accrued 1.2 fWAR, he was selected for the AL all-star squad. He's a free-agent after this season.
Better than Tony Cruz?
Well, maybe. It's hard to know precisely how good is Tony Cruz. In his career, which is just 391 PA's, Cruz has a .238/.282/..326 line, which is good for a 68 wRC+. So far, 2013 has been his best season, but after just 59 PA's, not much should be read into that. Defensively, he's graded out as a bit above average, but given the how few games he's caught in his career, the numbers don't speak too loudly. The biggest advantage that Cruz possesses over Suzuki or any other catcher is his familiarity with the coaching and pitching staffs. Over a full season, this wouldn't save him from being replaced, but over 2 months it's likely a real consideration for John Mozeliak and Mike Matheny.
Suzuki's advantage is that he's more of a known-quantity as a good defensive catcher and currently sports a .303/..358/.394 batting line. However, he was terrible with the bat in 2012 and 2013 (downright Cruzian), so it's reasonable to wonder if he can continue hitting as he has. His .322 BABIP doesn't suggest anything too unusual, but it's far over his career .273 mark. On the other hand, his plate discipline numbers are improved this season (not just a lower K%, but fewer swings at pitches out of the zone and better contact rates) as is his average flyball distance. This suggests that his better hitting this season could be sustainable since it's related to some changes in approach. At the least, he probably represents a modest upgrade with the bat over Tony Cruz right now.
However, there's one more factor to consider. Tony Cruz has graded out as roughly average in pitch-framing over his career. Kurt Suzuki currently ranks worst in baseball in 2014 and was very poor in each of the last two season. Check out StatCorner to explore this fascinating data.
Better than John Buck?
Probably. John Buck has a career .234 batting average and .301 OBP, and both numbers have trended down recently. His only calling card with the bat was power, but that was just a rumor in his time with Seattle this season. He grades out as above average behind the plate, but less good than Suzuki, and while he's not as bad a Suzuki at pitch framing, he's below average there as well. Between the two, Suzuki is the better bet to produce better than Tony Cruz over the next two months, though that doesn't mean the Cardinals shouldn't at least kick the tires on Buck, possibly as a back-up to Cruz.
Cheap to obtain?
This isn't a slam-dunk either. I thought the Twins would be happy to move Suzuki for a lower-tier prospect, and they might be after all, but it's not certain. I reached out to Jesse Lund, who runs Twinkie Town, the Minnesota Twins' SBN site, to see what he had to say about the likelihood that the Twins would be willing to move Suzuki. He was kind enough to pen this thorough response:
The Twins are interested in extending Suzuki, which makes him an unlikely guy to get dealt. There are two sides to that coin.
On one hand you have the Twins as an organization that isn't going to contend this season, and Rebuilding Team Best Practice 101 is flipping useful veterans on expiring contracts. Minnesota has a couple of players that fit that bill, including Josh Willingham and, surprisingly, Kevin Correia thanks to his recent performance. Suzuki should be included in that group. He's having a career year. In that scenario I'd like to think the return would be a C+ type prospect, a fringey B-, a younger player with some upside that the club likes and could potentially crack the team's Top 20 prospects list next year.
On the other hand, the Twins' catcher situation is far from stable. With Joe Mauer out from behind the plate permanently, it's turned out that while Josmil Pinto is more or less ready as a hitter (and has the potential to be an above average bat regardless of his position), he's a train wreck defensively. Sloppy footwork and inconsistent mechanics on throws to second make him an easy mark for a steal, in spite of a strong arm; base runners were 16-for-16 against him this season. Yikes. Organizational options like Eric Fryer or Chris Herrmann are fine stop gaps as a backup but are they type of player you shift between Triple-A and the big league club as needed. And then you look at the free agent market this winter, and the catcher crop is mighty thin. From that angle, keeping Suzuki in the fold makes sense.
The Twins not only want to avoid flipping Suzuki, they want to extend him. In most circumstances I'd strongly disagree, but considering the circumstances it's a fine decision provided his extension doesn't go beyond two years at ~$4 million per.
The Twins might be willing to move Suzuki anyhow, as they could conceivably sign him back next off-season, but if they're looking to extend him right now, it seems like they're unlikely to move him unless they can receive something of genuine value.
Kurt Suzuki probably represents a marginal upgrade from Tony Cruz. If I saw him standing on the side of the road with his thumb in the air, I'd open the door and ask him to come play baseball for my favorite team. However, over the course of two months, it's unlikely he's going to be better enough to justify giving up anything more than a token, and a mere token appears unlikely to be enough to obtain him from the Twins. As one last thought, it will be educational for the Cardinals to see Tony Cruz play every day for two months. That's not a sufficient reason to play him during a pennant race, but it's not an irrelevant consideration either.