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The last time a career Cardinal catcher entered free agency

It happened pretty recently

St. Louis Cardinal catcher Tom Pagnozzi dives but Photo credit should read PETER NEWCOMB/AFP via Getty Images

A longtime starting catcher for the Cardinals, who’s getting a bit advanced in age in baseball years, entered free agency for the first time and whose future with the only baseball team’s ever known is in doubt, but both sides are open to a deal and it will probably get done. That is a sentence that absolutely applies to Yadier Molina, but it could have been said verbatim 24 years ago.

On Halloween of 1996, 33-year-old Tom Pagnozzi was granted free agency for the first time in his career. He was drafted by the Cardinals 13 years earlier, in the 8th round of the 1983 draft. He rose through the minor league system slowly, finally getting a cup of coffee at the end of the year by 1987. Even though he performed poorly, the Cardinals wanted him for his defense, not his offense, so he was the backup catcher the next season.

He was done with the minor leagues for good that early, at 25-years-old. Aside from injuries that is, of which he had many, so he made some stops there for rehab appearances. Thanks to an uncharacteristically high .335 BABIP, he had a decent rookie year. In his second year, he barely played. The starter in front of him, Tony Pena, played in 141 games, and at the end of the year, he was also behind the future #7 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, Todd Zeile. The result was 52 games and 88 PAs. Not even Yadier Molina backups get treated that badly.

Pena was gone in favor of Zeile, and Pagnozzi jumped into being a proper backup again in 1990. Zeile was no good at defense though and moved to 3B by just his second full season, so Pagnozzi then became a starter for the first time at 28. Pagnozzi rewarded the Cardinals with a career year, a 3.4 fWAR season largely due to elite defense. He won his first of three Gold Gloves. He won a second straight in 1992, and despite a significantly less impressive year, made his first All-Star team.

And then the injuries started. He missed a little over a month in 1993 and didn’t play in his first game in 1994 until May 5th. He missed the last month of the season in 1995. In 1993, he complimented his missing time with his worst to date wRC+ of his career. His bat recovered in 1994, and it’s unfortunate his season started late and was interrupted to by the labor strike, because he had a 90 wRC+ and 1.6 fWAR in just 266 PAs. His 1995, however, was atrocious, with a 49 wRC+ before his season ended early.

But, well, he bounced back before hitting free agency. He hit a career high 13 HRs in 1996, en route to a 91 wRC+, which tied a career high for him. Yeah he wasn’t a good hitter. But with his defense, he was a 2.3 fWAR player in 440 PAs. It could not have been better timed for Pagnozzi and more poorly timed for the Cardinals. Because his previous deal had officially run out.

It seems fairly easy to deduce when he signed an extension based on salaries on B-R. The year after he was an All-Star, his salary nearly tripled, and he was one year before hitting free agency that year. He also, I imagine not coincidentally, got a $125K bonus for four straight years, with his first year being a salary of $2.575 million followed by $2.6 million followed by two straight $2.675 million. Seems safe to say this is all one deal.

The Cardinals did actually have an interesting prospect in the minors in the form of a 23-year-old Eli Marrero. He had an .820 OPS in AA in 1996, but never appeared higher so he wasn’t a great option for 1997. The free agent options were not great. The only decent option was a 32-year-old Benito Santiago, with a 3 year WAR average of 2.2 going into free agency. Pagnozzi ended up cheaper, signing 2 years, $3.75 million in comparison to Santiago’s 2 year, $5.5 million deal. Santiago ended up with just 0.9 fWAR in 113 games played in those two years.

However the nicest thing you can say is that the Cardinals simply paid less money, because things didn’t work out better for Pagnozzi. Pagnozzi played in just 76 games combined in those two years at essentially replacement level. Now, Pagnozzi was never as good as Molina was, so I’m actually not using him as a warning sign, but I only bring him up because I wanted to see how the Cardinals replaced their last longtime starting catcher. That was actually why I wanted to write this post.

But actually, something that is just as interesting is how they managed to replace him in those injury-filled years. Because their original plan is fairly clear. Two weeks after they signed Pagnozzi, they traded for 33-year-old Tom Lampkin to back him up. Lampkin has one of the most backup catcher careers of all-time. He debuted at 24 in 1988 for just 5 games. He then next appeared two years later for a different team. He combined for 152 PAs in the next three years, switched a different team that gave him 73 games played. He then didn’t play at all in 1994, then re-emerged for the next two years with yet another different team before being traded to the Cardinals.

But Lampkin was such a backup catcher that when Pagnozzi missed most of 1997, he didn’t take over starting duties. That went to 28-year-old Mike DiFelice, another player with an extremely backup catcher career. Because catcher careers just worked way differently than any other position, DiFelice was actually drafted by the Cards and had only debuted just the year before. He didn’t even see AAA until he was 26 and he mostly played in AA that year. This isn’t a thing with any other position, but it’s completely normal for a catcher.

Lampkin was actually good. Well good might be overstating it, but 0.8 fWAR in 267 PAs is perfectly fine for a player expected to be a backup. DiFelice, who had nearly 300 PAs, had just 0.2 fWAR. Lampkin had a little under-appreciated thing called patience, walking in 10.5% of his PAs en route to a .335 OBP and an 86 wRC+. DiFelice had no patience, hence the .297 OBP. Just an interesting thing to notice now, considered they had virtually the same average (though Lampkin had 7 to DiFelice’s 4 HRs in less PAs)

Both were returned for 1998, except for some reason the Tampa Bay Devil Rays decided to select DeFelice in the expansion draft. Which truly ended up being a blessing in disguise, at least if the Cardinals planned to do anything with DiFelice going forward. They left him unprotected so I suppose they didn’t. That’s probably because Marrero was now ready.

So in 1998, Lampkin once again split time with another catcher. Well, two really. Pagnozzi, it must be said, kept getting hurt. He played in just two games before being hurt. Marrero replaced him. He was sent back down when Pagnozzi returned, but at some point, the Cardinals just carried three catchers on the roster. This lasted until August, when they released Pagnozzi, who had a 52 wRC+ in 178 PAs. Lampkin lasted the whole year, with an 85 wRC+ and 0.4 fWAR while Marrero had not quite lived up to his #33 prospect in the nation status with a 78 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR in 83 games.

So back to my original intention, how did they replace Pagnozzi? Well, as I said, they already had a top prospect so that part wasn’t hard. Lampkin became a free agent, and I have to point this out, because this is fairly inexplicable. Lampkin is a perfectly passable backup at this point, and was going to be 35 in 1999. Well he played four more years. And had 4 fWAR in those years. 4 of his 6.7 career fWAR happened in his age 35 to age 38 seasons.

Anyway, back on topic, they replaced Lampkin with a Rule 5 pick, Alberto Castillo. What happened next was that Eli Marrero fell off a cliff with a 27 wRC+ in 343 PAs, and yes 27. That’s a .192/.236/.297 line. That pretty much removed Marrero from the long-term plans, even though had a decent next few years, the Cardinals set about replacing him at starter in 2000. Which they did when they signed Mike Matheny out of free agency. And then Matheny led directly to Molina, who is still here.

Pretty interesting route to Molina I think? The Cardinals had Pagnozzi as their starting catcher for years, and were forced to improvise on the fly when he couldn’t stay healthy or good in his last two years here. They had a transitional year, which was giving a top prospect a shot for one year, and then they’ve had two starters since. Of course, nobody in 1999 thought Marrero was the transitional year. They thought the last two years were, just waiting for Marrero to be ready.

I don’t really have a point to any of this. Maybe this is a warning sign? For Molina, maybe. For how catching prospects usually work, also maybe. I mean we have a top 10 catcher and a top 40 catcher in this very story, and one of them becomes an average 3B, and the other ends up as a useful utility guy who backs up at catcher also. Catching prospects break your heart. Anyway, it’s not a perfect comparison anyway. Herrera is three years younger than Marrero was at this time in 1996. Andrew Knizner is too old and not a good enough prospect to work for him to be the comparable either.

But hey, there’s something here and I found it interesting and I just decided to compile all this information for you to draw your own conclusions.