On Sunday I took a look at the top free agent catchers available and I wasn’t thrilled. None of the options are really great and all have traits that would make for a risky long term contract. It turns out that it’s really hard to find a complete catcher. Plain and simple.
The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t going to find one on the free agent market, and besides that, they aren’t going to find a catcher younger than 30 years old. That’s not ideal.
This is why I think the trade market is where the Cardinals should be looking. There are better, younger, more complete options there and the Cardinals have the trade assets to make a trade work.
This is when the Cardinals need to figure out what they want. If they want a big upgrade to the catching position, they should look to the trade market. If they want to save their assets for an upgrade elsewhere, they can find a serviceable catcher on the free agent market.
With that said, let me dive into the trade options at catcher and show you why I am so excited about this crop of players.
Sean Murphy - 28 years old, 5.1 fWAR in 2022
We’ll start with the top dog. The crown jewel. The best catcher on the trade market. No one else is even close in terms of production. Alejandro Kirk was worth 3.8 fWAR, which is a strong season but still nowhere near Sean Murphy’s season. In fact, Murphy was the third most valuable catcher in all of baseball last year, behind J.T. Realmuto and Adley Rutschman.
He’s also cheap as he is arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason. That makes him controllable too.
He also had a 122 wRC+, an xwOBA (.344) higher than his wOBA (.331), and strong walk and strikeout rates. And he’s an elite framer, has an elite pop time, and is a very good defensive catcher (10 DRS in 2021, 1 DRS in 2022).
I know I said above that it’s really hard to find a complete catcher but we’ve found one. And he’s cheap. And he’s controllable. And his team (probably) wants to trade him. He is quite literally the perfect candidate for the Cardinals.
There’s just one little problem. All of those traits that make him desirable also make him expensive. Really expensive. You don’t just get the third best catcher in baseball for free. If the Cardinals want Sean Murphy, they will need to surrender a lot.
Knowing the A’s, they are probably looking for cheap, controllable, MLB-ready prospects in return. That helps them put together a team on a shoestring budget and turns a really good player at one position into a few potentially good players at multiple positions.
The Cardinals can help them because they need hitters badly and the Cardinals have plenty of excess MLB-caliber bats. Nolan Gorman, Alec Burleson, Moises Gomez, Juan Yepez, Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, and even Lars Nootbaar could all be possibilities. The pitching side is a little shallower but I would be curious to see how much Oakland (and other teams) value Matthew Liberatore.
I think any trade for Sean Murphy will need to be centered around Nolan Gorman and probably an MLB outfielder plus more. It would be a steep price but the Cardinals do have enough depth to pay it, depending on what Oakland asks for.
Murphy is someone I hope the Cardinals pursue heavily. As an added bonus, if the Cardinals gets Murphy, they will still have financial flexibility to use elsewhere. Whereas signing Willson Contreras might end the spending for this offseason, trading for Sean Murphy would only get it started.
Danny Jansen - 27 years old (28 on Opening Day), 2.6 fWAR in 2022
Don’t let that 2.6 fWAR figure mislead you on how good Danny Jansen really is. He did that in just 248 plate appearances. Give him 600 and he’s on pace for 6.3 fWAR. It’s rare to see a catcher make 600 plate appearances in a season, so even as a starter, Jansen might not get that kind of playing time. Still, Sean Murphy cleared the 600 mark so it is still possible for the right player.
As you might expect from their similar fWAR/600 PAs total, Jansen compares similarly to Murphy. He had a 140 wRC+ last year and 5 DRS though he’s not as good at framing and he has a slower pop time.
Murphy is more well rounded, and though his bat was worse last year, he also played in all but 14 games in 2022. Give Jansen that kind of playing time and I would expect his numbers to take a dip. It’s hard to be a full time catcher.
Getting Murphy would mean that the Cardinals wouldn’t need to worry too much about who their backup catcher is. He’s a catcher in the Yadier Molina style. He’ll play everyday and keep producing. With Murphy on the roster, especially considering his 3 seasons of control, Ivan Herrera would be blocked from real playing time save for an injury.
That wouldn’t be the case if the Cardinals nabbed Jansen. I wouldn’t expect him to be an everyday kind of catcher. I do think he would be a most days kind of catcher, but Jansen would open up the possibility of a tandem with Herrera.
As I mentioned in my piece on free agent catchers, the Cardinals valuation of Ivan Herrera plays a role in what they do. If they like Herrera enough to keep him around and play him then Jansen would be a cheaper and still very effective option. If they are still unsure on Herrera, then Murphy provides unmatched security.
Jansen is a good catcher but he doesn’t have the same history as Murphy. He also has only two seasons of control left, though he will be cheap in that time. That should lower the cost of acquiring him.
I am absolutely interested in him too and the Cardinals could make an excellent trade partner for the Blue Jays.
Alejandro Kirk - 24 years old, 3.8 fWAR in 2022
Kirk is a little bit different than the rest of the catchers on this list because he rakes, he plays excellent defense, and he’s an excellent framer, but he does not have a great arm. In fact, he has a well below average arm. That’s literally the only weakness, though,
He walked more than he struck out while ranking in the 78th percentile in average exit velocity and the 94th percentile in framing runs. And he was accumulated 9 defensive runs saved.
That’s a heck of a profile. His lack of an arm hurts, though, especially with the league’s recent emphasis on incentivizing stolen base attempts. With Kirk behind the plate, the Cardinals would need their pitchers to be quick to the plate, otherwise singles could essentially become doubles against certain players.
That’s definitely a blemish and with rule changes coming into effect next year it could be an even bigger blemish than usual.
Let’s not take that out of perspective though. Kirk is a great player and that’s his only discernible weakness. He’s not quite the whole package but he’s pretty close. And there’s reason to believe that he could improve.
How does a player with a 90.5 mph average exit velocity hit just 14 home runs and post a .120 ISO? He hits half of his batted ball on the ground, that’s how. A 50% ground ball rate and 30% fly ball rate is not ideal for a power hitter. And Kirk could be a power hitter if he could just elevate the ball. That’s easier said than done but it offers him plenty of potential if he can figure it out.
The downside of Kirk is that it will take a lot to get him. He’s a 24-year-old 4 WAR catcher with 5 years of control. That’s not cheap. And it may even take more to get him than it would to get Sean Murphy. That’s speculation of course, but it’s rare for such a good young catcher to be available on the trade market. The Blue Jays aren’t just going to give him away.
You won’t be surprised by my verdict, but I would LOVE the Cardinals to pursue Kirk the same way I would LOVE for them to pursue Jansen or Murphy.
I’m not going to mention Gabriel Moreno because I think it’s highly unlikely that he gets traded. He will be 23 years old next year, had a great showing in his MLB debut, and was a mega-prospect coming into this season after ranking 7th in all of baseball according to Baseball America.
He would take a lot to acquire and offers less certainty than the other options. I would expect the Blue Jays to hold out for a hefty price at which point I would expect their trade partner to pivot to Jansen or Kirk due to their already well established ability.
I’m a fan of Moreno too (shocker, I know) but I don’t think the Cardinals will make a huge trade to acquire someone with only 25 MLB games under his belt to become the starting catcher.
With that said, there are still three really good trade options on the market and I would rather the Cardinals be aggressive on the trade market than in the free agent market. The catchers available for trade are more of a complete package than the catchers available in free agency.
This is how I would rank my interest in the names I have discussed today and on Sunday.
- Sean Murphy
- Danny Jansen
- Alejandro Kirk
- Christian Vazquez
- Willson Contreras
- Mike Zunino
If the Cardinals can get Sean Murphy, they shouldn’t let Ivan Herrera’s potential stand in the way. Murphy is one of the top catchers in baseball and the 29 MLB teams not based in Oakland have a tremendous opportunity to acquire one of the best players at the position and control him for 3 years.
Jansen is next because I think he offers the best blend of short term control and overall talent. That makes him the cheapest of the options on the trade market but should still allow him to be a high quality starting catcher. This would also give the Cardinals a way to keep Ivan Herrera if they don’t have any interest in re-signing Jansen at the end of his arbitration years.
Also, the Cardinals have done a great job at trading for players near the end of their contracts and convincing them to re-sign. This makes Jansen a great target because he’s good and should be acquired for less and could then re-sign after the end of his arbitration years. Because of that, there’s not a big gap between 1 and 2 on my list,
Kirk comes in third because he’s simply better than any option available in free agency.
Fourth is where things get a little weird because I would rather sign Vazquez and save money than give Willson Contreras a 4 or 5 year contract when his defense will likely decline significantly after the first few years.
Vazquez can at least be a fine short term stopgap for someone else and he wouldn’t break the bank.
Suffice it to say, the Cardinals should be active in the trade market and I expect they will be. They have the prospect capital to make a trade work and we’ve seen them be aggressive in similar situations in the past.
Thanks for reading, VEB! Let me know who you prefer in the comments.