With Yadier Molina gone, the only thing for certain is that for the first time since 2005 the St. Louis Cardinals will have a different starting catcher. The Cardinals could pursue a number of catchers on the trade market, using their wealth of upper level prospects to acquire one of their choice, or they could turn to the free agent market to fill the gap.
To start my look at the catching position, I want to begin by examining the free agent options. After looking at everyone available, I see three main options — Willson Contreras, Christian Vazquez, and Mike Zunino.
Of the list of available catchers, I narrowed it down to these three because the Cardinals need a starting caliber backstop. Each of these players qualifies to various degrees. I also wanted to present a few different options to present different price points that the Cardinals could shop from.
If the team has other moves in mind they may prefer a cheaper catching option or if the team wants to focus on the catching position then they may look to the top backstop on the market.
So, with that introduction out of the way, let’s dive into each price point.
Expensive - Willson Contreras (MLBTR Contract Projection: 4 years, $84 million)
Willson Contreras is the clear top option on the market. He has never been a below average hitter in his career, which is particularly impressive considering the lack of quality hitters at the catching position. He’s also coming off a 3.3 fWAR season. That’s the 9th highest mark in the majors among catchers and the highest mark among free agent catchers.
Nobody doubts his bat. It’s a clear asset, especially among catchers. The problem is his defense. He does not have a strong reputation as a game caller and he’s never been a great framer.
Here’s where he ranked in framing according to Baseball Savant
Catcher Framing Runs - 32nd (out of 60 qualified catchers)
Called Strike Rate - 44th (out of 60 qualified catchers)
Those aren’t exactly strong marks. His 46% called strike rate is the lowest of his career and his 0 catcher framing runs is the third highest mark of his 7 year career. He’s been in the negatives in the other 4 seasons and has a career total of -17 framing runs.
The one thing Willson Contreras does have is a well above average pop time (1.93 seconds to 2B). That hasn’t made him great at throwing out base stealers, though. The caught stealing rate generally hovers around 30% and Contreras’s career rate is 29.8%. Last year it was 31.4%.
He’s also pretty athletic and that does make him pretty good at blocking pitches in the dirt. Still, he’s probably an average defensive catcher at best, but most would probably consider him a little below average.
So the question then becomes, do the Cardinals want to pay top dollar for a catcher on the wrong side of 30 with a great bat and some defensive concerns? I think the answer to that depends on how quickly they think his defense will decline.
4 years and $84 million is a hefty contract for a player who’s below average defense is likely to get worse at probably the most important defensive position. He would be getting paid an average of $21 million through his age 34 season and he may be better off being a DH by the end of that contract.
In fact, it’s telling that the Cubs gave him 39 games as their DH last year. I’m sure some of those could be considered quasi-off days where the team wanted to keep his bat in the lineup but it’s not a good sign that he spent more than a third of his games as a non-catcher last year.
I would expect Contreras’s bat to keep contributing over the life of his contract, though. After all, that’s the most dependable part of his game. And take a look at his Baseball Savant page:
That’s a lot of red. At least for the hitting portions.
Willson Contreras will likely be overpaid at the end of his contract but that’s simply a fact of signing free agents. The hope is that he will provide excess value at the beginning of his contract and not completely fall off a cliff by the time he’s 34.
If the Cardinals want to stomach that risk, they would add a strong bat to next year’s lineup which is tough to find at the catching position. Otherwise, the Cardinals should look for a more mid-tier option to split time with Ivan Herrera and save the leftover money for an upgrade somewhere else (left-handed bat, rotation, bullpen, etc).
Mid-Tier: Christian Vazquez (MLBTR Contract Projection: 3 years, $27 million)
This is the mid-tier option on the market, which is actually a step down for Vazquez from recent years. If this was the offseason following the 2020 season, Christian Vazquez would be a hot commodity. In 2019 he finished 4th in fWAR among catchers and then he followed that up with a 9th place finish among catchers in 2020.
Unfortunately for him, he was unable to follow that up in 2021 as he was a well below average hitter and tallied just 0.4 fWAR in nearly 500 plate appearances. He bounced back with a just fine 1.6 fWAR season last year, but that puts him firmly in a tier below Willson Contreras.
Vazquez is pretty much the opposite of Willson Contreras. He has a strong reputation for his defensive contributions but is an average hitter at best. He had a 99 wRC+ last year which is actually above average for catchers, so, while he wouldn’t be a huge asset in the lineup, he does have a balanced game overall,
The question with Vazquez is if his framing skills have disappeared. His pitch framing peaked in 2019 with 12 framing runs. That figure dropped to 3 in 2020, 0 in 2021, and 1 in 2022.
Is Vazquez the elite framer that he was in 2019 or is he the roughly average framer that he’s been in recent years? That’s the question that the Cardinals will need to figure out. Besides framing, he does rate as a strong defense catcher who posted 11 defensive runs saved. He has 51 career DRS too so that’s not a fluke even if it may be higher than should be expected.
He also is well-respected for his traits that don’t show up in his stats. Namely, game calling and leadership. That may be something that appeals to a team looking for a successor to Yadier Molina.
Vazquez is not an exciting player by any means, but he is generally solid. He would offer the Cardinals a discount that they wouldn’t find with Willson Contreras and he would perhaps allow for Ivan Herrera to see more game action since Contreras is more of a regular than Vazquez.
A 3 year contract would mean paying Vazquez until he’s 35. The AAV looks like it could be under $10 million, so there is less risk if he starts losing his production.
Cheap/Mid-Tier: Mike Zunino (Spotrac Contract Projection: $9.6 million AAV)
I know Zunino’s contract projection is actually more than Christian Vazquez’s but I don’t think he will end up with the bigger contract. That’s because he’s coming off a surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome which caused him to miss most of 2021.
He’s also going to be 32 years old next season. He won’t get an AAV near $10 million unless he signs a short term contract. If he signs a multi-year deal, I would expect to see that AAV fall below Vazquez’s. It’s always difficult to predict the market, but that is what I would expect.
That could make Zunino a good option for the Cardinals even if he isn’t the safest option. He has always been a solid defensive option and I expect that his TOS contributed to his -2 DRS season because he has 51 DRS in his career and in 2021 he compiled 7 DRS.
He’s also generally a strong framer and a well respected catcher overall. His offense has not been as consistently good, though he does hit the ball hard. His problem is a career 34.7% strikeout rate and .200 batting average.
His power helps him hit the ball well enough to see the field and he’s even had 3 seasons of above average production, most recently in 2021 when he posted a 134 wRC+ and 4.5 fWAR. In the two years prior, he posted wRC+es of 46 and 66 and then in 2022 he finished with a wRC+ of just 43. So he’s been downright terrible at the plate in 3 of the last 4 years, though his 2021 season represents a high ceiling.
He is probably one of the players with the most uncertainty in all of free agency but I could see the Cardinals taking a chance on his power and defense on a short term contract.
Signing Zunino would require a lot of confidence in Ivan Herrera because Zunino’s recovery is still unclear and his bat in inconsistent with an incredibly low floor. It basically has the floor of Austin Hedges and the ceiling of Willson Contreras.
He’s a wild card but a wild card I am interested in. His uncertainty means that he would be my third choice on the free agent market, though.
I could list other options at a cheaper price point than these but I don’t think the Cardinals should go any cheaper and I don’t think they will. If the Cardinals don’t prefer any of these three options then they should look at the trade market.
Willson Contreras stands out to me as the clear top option due to the potency of his bat but I do have some concerns that his already slightly below average defense could decline significantly by the end of his contract. That’s the cost of signing free agents on the wrong side of 30, though.
Christian Vazquez is the definition of average. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it’s not exciting either. He would represent a clear upgrade behind the plate but then again so would any warm body.
I actually wouldn’t mind seeing the Cardinals pursue Mike Zunino if they can get him at the right price and contract length. I think he may still have a good year or two left in him and his injury could bring his price down. He’s only one year removed from an all star appearance and though thoracic outlet syndrome is concerning, it’s not nearly as concerning for a catcher.
To me, what really determines the route the Cardinals should take is how much confidence they have in Ivan Herrera. If it’s not much, then Willson Contreras should be the choice. If they still think he can be an everyday catcher, then a cheaper option like Vazquez of Zunino should be the choice. That would allow Herrera more playing time but also put more pressure on him to perform.
With Contreras behind the plate, there’s less pressure on the backup because he will provide enough production by himself to make the position above average for the team.
I’ll leave you with that before giving my recommendation on Tuesday when I cover backstops who could be potential trade targets.
Thanks for reading VEB! Let me know in the comments which free agent catcher you prefer. Enjoy your Sunday!