The St. Louis Cardinals are headed into what will likely be Yadier Molina’s final season. Since making his debut in 2004, he has been a fixture of the lineup and an ever-present figure for the club. The Cardinals have not needed to worry about who would be their starting catcher since Molina took over. That is about to change, though. If Molina does in fact retire following the 2022 season, the Cardinals may need to find a gap year catcher.
It is common knowlede that Ivan Herrera is the catcher of the future. That does not seem to be disputed in very many places. He was recently named a top-5 Cardinals prospect by Baseball America and he will still be 21 years old when he takes over as the starting catcher in Memphis. He is clearly a promising prospect, and the best catching prospect in the Cardinals system. However, he may not be ready to succeed Molina by the start of 2023.
Herrera tore through the minors and raked at every level. He was only a slightly above average hitter in 18 games at Palm Beach, but Palm Beach is a difficult place to hit. Given the small sample size and the lack of time to make an adjustment, it seemed more than likely that he would go back to raking in 2020. Without a minor league season last year Herrera did not repeat High-A and was instead pushed to Double-A for the 2021 season.
His 104 wRC+ at the level represents the first full season in which he did not dominate at the plate. Still, he was three years younger than the average Double-A player. He also saw an uptick in power (17 homers, career high .176 ISO) and walk rate (career high 13.7%) without seeing a spike in his strikeout rate (1.8% increase from 2019). This is solid production from a 21-year-old at an advanced level. Despite this, he clearly did not dominate.
He will be the starting catcher in Triple-A next season, but he has work to do if he is going to reach the majors by the start of 2023. Baseball America noted that his receiving regressed and he struggled with drops in 2021. Besides needing to improve offensively against advanced competition, it seems that Herrera also needs to improve defensively.
This is not to say that he is not a good prospect. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is to say that he is still young and he needs more time to develop in order to be ready for the demands of being a starting catcher in the majors.
Unless he makes major improvements at the plate and behind it in 2022, which is possible, it seems likely that Herrera will not be ready to take over the starting job at the beginning of 2023. This is not a major issue as long as he can take it over eventually, but it does mean that the Cardinals will need to begin thinking about short-term options once Molina is gone.
Andrew Knizner needs work offensively and defensively, so he is not a clear-cut option either. He had a wRC+ of 50 and ranked in just the third percentile in pitch framing according to Baseball Savant. He hit his way through the minors, but has stalled at the major league level. 2022 could represent his last chance to lay a claim on the catcher position in St. Louis. If everything goes smoothy and Herrera takes the job at some point in 2023 or 2024, then the team will likely prefer a defensively solid backup catcher. This would spell the end of Knizner’s time in St. Louis unless he can show some improvement next season.
Knizner needs to have a better showing in 2022 than he did in 2021. As for the other catchers in the Cardinals system, they are all jockeying for a role as the backup. If Herrera claims the starting job, as he hopefully will, there will be very little opportunity for the rest of the minor league catchers in the system.
Two names stand out as potential backups to Herrera. Julio Rodriguez and Ali Sanchez. Both players are defense first catchers, which could be beneficial since Herrera still needs to clean up his work behind the plate. Of the two, Julio Rodriguez is more exciting because he has had some success with the bat despite his struggles in 2021. Ali Sanchez has not been an above average hitter since rookie ball, but Rodriguez posted a strong 115 wRC+ in High-A in 2019. He missed the start of the season because of an injured hamate bone and then he suffered a setback during the season that caused him to miss more time.
When he was on the field he was not great, batting just .196 with a 47 wRC+. However, it has to be hard to be a catcher with an injured wrist, so Rodriguez’s prospect stock may rebound with a healthy 2022. He is probably the best defensive catcher in the system, so if his bat could come around, he would make a nice complement to Herrera. If he continues to struggle at the plate then Ali Sanchez could be an option due to his more extensive experience at the upper levels of the minors. He may not be a particularly good hitter (85 wRC+ in 2021), but he can at least hold his own at the plate.
Rodriguez was ranked by Baseball America as the Cardinals 16th best prospect halfway through the 2021 season. Despite his struggles, he does have a bit of prospect pedigree. Ali Sanchez, on the other hand, was ranked as the Mets 27th best prospect in 2020, but Baseball America has never ranked him among the top 30 Cardinals farmhands.
It may not be a bad idea to look outside the organization for a complement to Herrera who can begin the 2023 season as the starting catcher if needed. The problem is that the Cardinals are not going to find a good catcher willing to sign with the catcher of the future nearly MLB-ready. Because of this, lower tier options are probably the only realistic choice.
It would be nice if Herrera was ready to be the starting catcher by opening day of the 2023 season. However, the Cardinals should not set that as a hard deadline for him. Rather, they should let him develop at his own pace. It is important not to rush him too much so that he can reach his full potential and be the long term starter. Still, it would be nice if the Cardinals were not caught in a sort of catcher purgatory where they have to wait for Herrera and can’t really sign any good options. Herrera’s 2022 season will determine a lot.
Besides Herrera, 2022 is important for Knizner, Rodriguez, and Sanchez as they all have a chance to seize the opportunity of becoming Herrera’s complement. Knizner may see increased playing time in the upcoming season due to Molina’s age, and Rodriguez has the chance for a bounce-back season now that he is healthy. If neither of them are up for the task then Ali Sanchez or an outside option are the most likely choice for the Cardinals with the outside option of having the added benefit of MLB experience in case the team needs a starter in the first half of the year and wants to provide Herrera with a more seasoned backup.