The Cardinals have, it seems, come to terms on an agreement with Matt Wieters, the former Baltimore Oriole and long-time major league catcher. (Also former Washington National, but I think we all remember him as the super-prospect who got the Albert Pujols-esque PECOTA projection from Baseball Prospectus back in the day before he had even appeared in the big leagues.)
The deal is a minor league contract with a spring training invite, which of course there’s an invite, otherwise why would you bother? So far, there are no financial details, so we’ll have to wait and see what kind of structures are in place should Wieters ultimately make the team.
This...is interesting. Actually, that’s probably underselling things a bit, even. The Cardinals, as we stand here today, are at a very interesting crossroads sort of moment with their catching position, the result of a confluence of multiple factors and events. We know, of course, that Yadier Molina is still the starting catcher, and probably will be again next year, though that is admittedly not set in stone at this point. It might feel like it’s set in stone, but if we consider how much time Yadi has spent on the DL the past handful of years, it’s worth at least acknowledging that situations are prone to changing relatively quickly when you’re talking about a player past his 35th birthday, doubly so when talking about catchers. If Yadi is healthy, it would seem he’s likely to keep playing as much as he can.
However, it’s also a fact that the Cards can see the end of Molina’s tenure here as starter and face of the franchise without binoculars at this point, and they have done a lot of work the past handful of years to try and build in some depth at the catching position, not to mention some future possibilities to take over the spot when Yadi does finally decide to hang up his shin guards. Carson Kelly was just a little bit too early; if Kelly had been a year younger, or even just not yet burning options, he might not have been moved this offseason in the Paul Goldschmidt deal. He might still have been; maybe the Diamondbacks really liked him and made him a priority. But there was also a slight feeling of inevitability regarding Kelly being dealt at some point in time; it was a tough thing to line up, the window of Kelly’s emergence with the end of Yadi’s career. By the time Molina was ready to go, the argument went, Kelly would have already wasted multiple pre-arbitration seasons sitting and waiting for his time to come around. Ultimately, it made too much sense for the club not to make moving Kelly a priority, or at least an easy bargain to which they could agree.
We know also about Andrew Knizner, whose own timetable is a little better suited to Yadi’s situation, and has to be seen at this point as the presumptive heir apparent to the franchise icon. Knizner is not yet on the 40 man roster, which is actually very helpful at the moment, because it prevents him from having to being burning option seasons any sooner than necessary. If pressed, I would posit I believe Knizner will end up making his way onto the 40 man at some point this season, and probably make an appearance in the majors, thus ending up forcing an option to be burned anyhow. I am not, however, completely convinced of that, and maybe the Cards can push through 2019 without having to use one of Knizner’s options just yet.
What this Wieters signing means to me is that the Cardinals have decided they really do need a better backup, a more meaningful backup, to Yadier Molina than they have had in the past, but are unwilling to throw a wrench into future plans to make sure that happens. It’s not shocking that the club would be interested in a more competent backup than the entirely intagible-based players they’ve mostly stuck behind Yadi in the past; the fact Molina is currently sitting on the bench, rather than playing in games, is proof enough that he’s not exactly a guarantee of health at this point. The Cards have given over the bulk of the playing time behind Yadi in years past to scrubs like Francisco Pena or Tony Cruz, and it appeared up until now that such was going to be the plan again this season.
The other choice, of course, was to accelerate the timetable on Andrew Knizner, and bring him up to at least take the role of backup to Yadi, if not push toward an outright timeshare.
Well, we see now there was a third path, and the Cardinals took it. This is, finally, the accomplished backup catcher so many of us have been clamouring for over the years, and actually gives the Redbirds a player they should be willing to use in an offensive capacity, rather than a once a week backstop who is apparently great in planning meetings, which seems to have been the primary quality inherent in the backups of the past.
That’s not to say Wieters is a great player at this stage of his career; he posted a wRC+ of 89 last year, and was worth just under one win in 271 plate appearances. Nor is he a threat to seriously cut into Molina’s playing time should Yadi come out of the gate looking like the Yadier Molina of 2012-’14. But Matt Wieters, for all the hype to which he never quite lived up, has still been a very solid, very productive major league catcher. His career WAR is a bit under 20, his career wRC+ is 93, and to the extent we can tell, he’s mostly been a positive defender. The fact he’s a switch hitter is a really excellent bonus, and should give Mike Shildt a bit of extra flexibility on his bench.
Of course, this is all predicated on Wieters actually making the big league squad out of spring training, which I suppose is not guaranteed at this point. Maybe we get another year of Francisco Pena after all.
Just kidding. The Cardinals went out and signed Matt Wieters for a reason, and I have to believe they did so with every intention of him stepping on to the club immediately and taking over the second string catching job. The questionable health of Yadier Molina dictated the Cards needed to find something resembling a competent, useful backup more than ever before; their choices were to push their heir apparent ahead of schedule or to go out and find a player who could fulfill the role for at least 2019. With Wieters, they’ve clearly opted for the latter approach. It may not be the best news for Knizner in terms of getting on to the 40 man roster and seeing bigger checks, but it’s probably the best thing in the long term if they can keep him on the developmental track and out of Yadi’s shadow for at least a little bit longer.