In 2005, it was Einar Diaz. In 2006 and 2007, it was Gary Bennett. From 2008 through 2011, it was Jason LaRue. From 2012 through 2015, it was Tony Cruz (with a notable cameo in 2014 from A.J. Pierzynski). Last year, it was supposed to be Brayan Pena. And now, as Yadier Molina enters the season in which he will turn 35 years old, it may be time for the St. Louis Cardinals to get serious about their backup catcher position.
Yadier Molina is a beloved part of 21st century Cardinals lore, and nearly as notable as his reputation for throwing out would-be base stealers is his reputation for durability. In 2016, Molina set new career highs in games, plate appearances, and innings. Not only did Molina clear 1200 innings behind the plate in 2016 for the first time in his career, he was the only catcher in baseball last year to reach the mark. Since making his MLB debut in 2004, only the aforementioned Pierzynski, Russell Martin, and Brian McCann are within two thousand innings of Molina’s accumulated workload.
But while 2016 marked an uptick in Molina’s offensive performance, his defensive numbers declined. Among the fifteen qualified catchers last season, Molina ranked 14th in Defensive Runs Saved, posting a higher total than only Russell Martin (that Martin has also spent much of his career piling up innings is probably not a coincidence).
The Cardinals believe they have their successor to Yadier Molina in Carson Kelly, and because Molina will certainly still receive plenty of playing time in 2017, Kelly will begin next season accumulating innings with the Memphis Redbirds. Kelly remains the only catcher other than Molina on the 40-man roster, and while the Cardinals did sign Eric Fryer (“fun” fact: in 41 plate appearances with the Cardinals last season, Fryer posted the highest FanGraphs WAR total since 2005 among catchers not named Yadier Molina) to a minor league deal, we have already witnessed the lack of faith that the Cardinals have in Eric Fryer as anything beyond a last-resort backup.
As is the case with most positions this off-season, the free agent class for catchers is not particularly deep. With today’s signing of Welington Castillo by the Baltimore Orioles, following Jason Castro’s November 30 signing with the Minnesota Twins, and Wilson Ramos signing with the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday, the top free agent catcher by a mile is former Orioles backstop Matt Wieters, who is far beyond the Cardinals’ budget and need—he is a player who will certainly be a regular starting catcher somewhere in 2017.
Which brings me to Alex Avila, of the Detroit Tigers from 2009 through 2015 and the Chicago White Sox last season. While Avila had one exceptional season, in 2011, when he was an All-Star, a Silver Slugger winner, and 12th place in American League MVP voting (for those who prefer a more sabermetric lean to their player shorthand, Avila was second only to Mike Napoli—who was only a catcher in about half of his games—in FanGraphs WAR among catchers), injuries have taken their toll and therefore while his peak might suggest that he is among the best catchers on the free agent market, he is well under the radar.
He has a history of concussions, and a pair of hamstring injuries hampered Avila’s 2016, but he was effective when he did play. In 209 plate appearances, he was an above-average hitter (104 wRC+, not a far cry from his career wRC+ mark of 105) and a competent fielder. He wasn’t vintage Yadier Molina, throwing out just 22% of would-be base stealers (his career mark is 29%, and in 2016, MLB catchers as a whole threw out 28% of attempting thieves), but the complete package Avila offered was decent. Prorated to Molina’s 2016 plate appearance total, Avila would have been worth over 3 fWAR.
The injuries, of course, are a concern, but Alex Avila’s 209 plate appearances in 2016 were a career low. Entering St. Louis as the backup to Molina, albeit a much more glorified backup than Cardinals fans have come to expect over the last dozen seasons, would mean that Avila would not be expected to play that much, and fewer innings may allow Avila to stay healthier than has generally been the case throughout his career.
Alex Avila is a veteran, but at the age of 30, which he will be all of next season, he is hardly ancient. Avila draws an above-average number of walks, including 18.3% and 18.2% walk rates in 2015 and 2016, and he has a 13.7% mark for his career; this type of plate approach could serve Avila well as he ages. Coming off of a season in which he could not emerge from a time-share with Dioner Navarro, it is unlikely that Avila would demand a gargantuan free agent contract, particularly after making just $2.5 million in 2016.
Avila is a left-handed batter, and he has a lefty/righty split (his career wRC+ against lefites is 73, and against righties it is 114). While he would not be in a true platoon with Yadier Molina, Avila would provide ample opportunity for logical off-days for Molina—when a right-handed pitcher is throwing, and Molina has gone several days without rest, Mike Matheny will have a far more tempting option in a solid-hitting veteran with the platoon advantage, as opposed to previous years, in which the Cardinals’ backup catcher’s stature reflected the lack of playing time expected of him.
While Avila would do little to raise the ceiling of the 2017 Cardinals, he would raise the team’s floor—he is a safer insurance policy for long-term Molina injury than Carson Kelly or Eric Fryer, and by allowing the Cardinals to pace Yadier Molina in an unprecedented manner, it could ensure that the Cardinals legend is at his best once the hopeful playoff run comes around.