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(Update: Cards Acquire C Ali Sanchez) Catcher: Playing Time & Production Projections

Molina is locked in. Knizner is set to be the backup. We can now make some projections about catcher playing time and production for 2021.

St Louis Cardinals Summer Workouts Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Update: 2/12/21, 11:55 am CST

Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat is reporting that the Cardinals have acquired C Ali Sánchez from the Mets for cash. Sánchez is on the 40-man roster and would represent a dark horse challenger to Andrew Knizner for the primary backup position.

Sánchez rates as a quality defensive player. Fangraphs scouts him with 55s in both receiving and throwing. He had 10 PAs with the Mets last season but only has 21 games at the AAA level in his career.

Jeff speculates that Sánchez and Heineman are likely to serve as the catching duo at Memphis, which would allow Herrara to work through the system more slowly. I would agree with that assessment. Sánchez looks like a fine addition to the Cardinals catching stable. An organization can never have enough good defensive catchers. His offense is not very inspiring. He has a solid hit tool — not as good as Knizner’s — with limited power and low walk totals.

If the organization is not satisfied with Knizner’s defensive progress, it’s possible that Sánchez could find himself as the primary backup, largely for defensive purposes.

Original article:

Molina is back with the Cardinals. (Everyone cheers!)

Early this offseason reports indicated that Molina was seeking a two-year deal and there were multiple teams interested, with the Cardinals favored to bring their Hall of Fame catcher back. It wasn’t the most harmonious of free-agent negotiations. The Cardinals continued to express their desire for him to return. Molina, meanwhile, expressed his growing displeasure with the process through family, friends, and his Instagram account.

In the end, it doesn’t look like his market ever materialized as he hoped. The Cardinals refused to bid against themselves, and Molina had to settle for a 1-year contract worth $9M earlier this week.

With Molina’s contract guaranteed, Knizner likely to serve as his backup, and Tyler Heineman as experienced AAA depth, the Cardinals are committing around $9.55M to the catcher position on Opening Day in 2021. The final total will end up a bit higher if Heineman sees the roster (and I’m projecting he will), but that will be the lowest amount the club has spent on the catcher position since 2012 when Molina was in the final year of his arbitration buy-out contract.

C: Who Plays and How Much?

Molina has a reputation as an ironman, who demands to be in the lineup every day. This has led to more than a few “trade Knizner for his own sake!” posts on Twitter. The belief is that since Yadi will play every day, the club might as well get what they can out of Kniz now. The team did this with Carson Kelly, using their superfluous young catching prospect in a package to acquire Paul Goldschmidt.

Let me be clear: if another such deal is out there, I certainly would not hesitate to move Knizner.

It’s not, though. So, the Cardinals need to both keep Knizner and find a way to play Knizner. How can both things happen with Molina around?

While Molina has a reputation for wanting to play as much as possible, he hasn’t actually been able to stay on the field at a high rate. The percentage of games caught by Molina has steadily dropped since its peak in 2016.

This chart includes Molina’s games started and PAs by season since 2016 and compares them to the percentage of the Cardinals’ total games and catcher PAs. Molina’s percentage of games and PAs has dropped by 6-8 percentage points every year until 2020. Last year, that percentage rose in the shortened 58 game season.

Molina is now 38 and will turn 39 during the season. The most games played by a 38-year old catcher since 2000 is Jorge Posada at 120. Only Brad Ausmus, A.J. Pierzynski, Ivan Rodriguez, Benito Santiago, and Tom Lampkin have started over 100 games in an age 38 season in the last 20 years. If we stretch that to age 39, Ausmus and Pierzynski top the list, but at just 81 games.

Recent history plus Molina’s own trends help us establish projected playing time for 2021. If he continues his current trend, then injury and time off could cut another 6-8% out of his playing time. Assming a 162 game season, that would take Molina down from 108 games started in 2019 to a projected 97 games started in 2021. A similar translation in PAs results in just 403 for the coming season.

That leaves a lot of space for Andrew Knizner. And it opens the door for a long-overdue honest conversation about the Cardinals’ not-so-young-anymore catcher and his future.

Listen, Kniz is a fine prospect. He can hold his own defensively. I thought he looked perfectly fine behind the plate in his brief stretch of games started in 2020 when Molina was out with COVID. He certainly looked better than the hurting Matt Wieters. He is also going to hit a little in the league. At age 23-25, Kniz consistently posted a wRC+ in the 100-120 range in the high minors with good contact numbers and low K’s, but without much power or walk rates. If that 100-120 wRC+ rates would translate perfectly, Knizner would be a very interesting bat. That’s not going to happen, though, since he’s a slow-footed line-drive hitter (lots of singles) with little over-the-wall power or high walk totals.

Put it together and Knizner profiles as a decent but not great defensive catcher – maybe he could reach up to league average – with a decent but not great offensive profile – maybe he could reach up to league average.

Does that sound like the kind of guy that has to start in this league?

Not really. It does sound like the perfect guy to backup a living legend in his age-38 season. If Molina stays healthy and Kniz only gets 30 starts, that’s ok. If Molina doesn’t stay healthy, and Kniz gets 100 starts, that’s probably ok, too.

Regardless, it’s my opinion that Knizner needs to be up in the majors as the primary backup for the full season. After two partial seasons at AAA and most of last season spent at the alternate training site, he has nothing more to gain from minor league instruction. He doesn’t “need to play” anywhere he can. Instead, he needs to catch and face major league pitchers as much as he can. Then the club can make a more informed decision about his future after the season, when Molina is up for another contract and Ivan Herrera, a legitimately great catching prospect, is nipping at his heels.

Here’s the playing time allotment I would suggest for the season:

Tyler Hieneman is there as system depth, which the club needed. He’s likely to see some time at the major league level, though he isn’t on the 40-man roster. The aforementioned Herrera is, which could create some interesting roster decisions if Molina or Knizner is out and the club needs a backup for a few weeks.

C: Projected Production

There is reason to be concerned about Molina’s offensive profile at this point in his career. In 2016, Molina had a .307/.360/.427 slash line and a 114 wRC+. From there, Molina’s wRC+ has gone 95, 105, 87, 82 through last season. His BB rate has dropped. His K rate has risen. His ISO has fallen.

A similar decline is happening to Molina’s defense. From 2016 through 2019, Molina’s DEF has fallen from 14 to 8.8.

There is good reason to believe that Yadi will be well below average with his bat in 2020 but still ok with his glove (by Fangraphs’ limited catcher metrics). That was an issue when he was making $20M per year. It’s just fine at 1/$9M. I’m not sure what the dollar value per WAR will be in 2021, but based on the 2019 numbers, the Cardinals are paying him to be a 1 WAR player. That’s right in line with his projections.

We discussed Andrew Knizner’s offense and defense above. Let’s bring it into context. His offensive style is remarkably reminiscent of Molina’s. By OPS+, Knizner projects as a slightly better hitter by ZiPS – 81 OPS+ for Kniz compared to 78 for Molina. Neither figure is particularly encouraging. Defensively, Molina and Knizner both project for a 3 “Def” in the ZiPS’ spreadsheet.

Essentially projections think the two players are interchangeable. That makes it easy for us to combine their production by playing time (with a pinch of Hieneman thrown in) and provide some overall projected production for the C position in 2021.

2.0 WAR overall isn’t that exciting. It’s not bad, though, considering the Cardinals are going to try to get it from a soon-to-be 39-year-old and a player with 75 major league PAs to his name.

Can they beat that total?

Maybe, but not by much. Their best bet is for Molina to reclaim a little of his power or for Andrew Knizner to translate his contact ability to a higher-than-expected BABIP and batting average.

Can they come in lower than that?

They can, but not by much. Even if injuries push Molina and Knizner out, Hieneman projects to over 1 WAR over a full season of games (.6 WAR per 81 games played.) It’s just not very likely that any of these players will provide less than a 75-80 wRC+ (which is pretty low) or play significantly less than average’ish defense.

In all, besides the joy of a legendary Cardinal returning for another run, the Cardinals can expect solid but less-than-good production from the catcher position, with almost no plausible upside but no real risk either. It’s a fine situation for the club to be in as they wait to see what Knizner does and for Herrera to continue to advance his intriguing skillset.