This is my second offseason post, if you ignore the Hall of Fame interlude, and it’s the second post to focus on catching. If you’re wondering what I think the most important aspect of the offseason is, this should tell you something. That doesn’t mean they need to devote the most resources or the most money to improving at catcher, just that it’s easily the biggest hole and biggest team need by far.
Last year, the Cardinals were the 27th best team by fWAR, which sounds bad enough, but the fact that they were as high as 27th is somewhat notable, considering they were well below replacement level as a unit. In 613 plate appearances, Cardinals’ catchers were worth -0.6 fWAR. Their best catcher, Yadier Molina, retired. While Ivan Herrera wasn’t given a fair shake (-0.1 fWAR) and it’s unfair to assume he’d be below replacement level if given the job, it’s also probably unwise to assume he’d be immediately average or better and they’d still have the problem of Andrew Knizner being a well below replacement catcher for his career (-1.7 fWAR in 553 PAs). So no matter how you slice it, they need at least one catcher.
The path of least resistance is signing Willson Contreras. He is the best player available at catcher in free agency, so you wouldn’t have to give up a king’s ransom like for Sean Murphy. Or two of the Blue Jays catchers, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno. You’d have to give up less for Danny Jansen (the third Blue Jays catcher), but still a notable prospect at least. These catchers are more or less the top of the market and any other option is a step down. If they go a different route, that should be a sign that the Cardinals are using resources or money elsewhere, which I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to, so long as they still acquire someone better than Andrew Knizner.
In the meantime, let’s look at a potential deal for Contreras. There are three strikes against Contreras: his age (31), the fact that he’s coming off his best season of his career (3.3 fWAR), and his defense (-6.4 framing runs above average per 800 innings caught). He only caught 600 innings last year, which made sense on the Cubs since he was their best hitter and they didn’t really have a bunch of great options to DH. Unless the roster construction changes for the Cards, it makes zero sense for him to DH more than a handful of games for the Cardinals, a point I’ll defend later in this article.
His positive attributes are mostly his bat. Good hitting catchers are not easy to find or acquire. Contreras has been a 120 wRC+ hitter or better in four of his seven seasons. He has never been a below average hitter in a season. Despite my claim that 2022 being his best season was a negative, there wasn’t anything unsustainable about what he did. His xwOBA (.364) was better than his actual wOBA. (.357). I point this out because his career xwOBA (.316) is almost the exact same as his actual wOBA (.315).
Not necessarily a positive, but the non-framing parts of his catching are fine. According to Baseball Prospectus, his blocking runs above average is +1.3 over his career and he is 15th among active players in caught stealing percentage with a 29.8% rate. I’m not sure how his game-calling is, but that’s hard to quantify anyway. I assume “basically average.” I think framing is the only negative of his defense, unfortunately, he’s very, very bad at it and it makes him a bad defensive catcher by itself.
Also, this seems to come with the territory of being a catcher, but Contreras is a bad baserunner. He’s been -19.4 runs below average for his career by BsR, which is -3.7 per 550 PAs. Interestingly, he’s not really slow, especially for a catcher. His sprint speed of 27.6 feet per second ranks tied for 253rd out of 582 players. He’s just... not good at baserunning.
Contreras should be viewed primarily as a catcher for the Cardinals if they sign him, because the roster construction doesn’t support him taking too many designated hitter starts. The Cardinals already have obvious DH candidates in Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman, and/or Alec Burleson. Secondly, I am skeptical they are replacing Knizner as the backup and every game Contreras DHs is a game Knizner catches.
Ideally, Knizner is starting as few games as possible, but if Contreras is DHing, someone has to catch. Knizner starting 70 or so games would be bad. Contreras making sense to DH would necessitate a move for another catcher who is roughly an average player in his own right. Can’t see that happening, I suspect even if they replace Knizner, his replacement will be a below average player. Maybe not as disastrous as giving Knizner 70 starts, but still giving starts to a worse player than Yepez or Gorman or Burleson probably.
Contreras reportedly wants a 5 year deal, exceeding $100 million. Gut feeling tells me he’s more likely to sign a 4 year deal. Just because he’s seeking a deal in excess of $100 million doesn’t mean he’ll get it. But is he on the right track? Well, as of writing this, I have learned that the ZiPS 3-year projection disappeared, which is not ideal. Contreras had a 2022 projection of 2.6.... but it doesn’t look like it inputted framing at all, because the defense number was 0. Since his value as a framer is -6 runs on average, that essentially means they projected a 2 WAR season in 460 PAs.
Of course, the two previous seasons to his 2022 projection, his bat was a 111 wRC+ and a 110 wRC+ and because of it, his projection was worse than his career numbers. ZiPS uses OPS+ and they projected a 106 OPS+ (by OPS+, his two previous seasons were 109 and 106). Looking at his past performance in comparison to his projection, I don’t know that they’ll significantly up his projection. His OPS+ projection the last three years were 106, 104, 106. The last of which was coming off a 126 wRC+ season. I feel like a 115 wRC+ is about as good as it’ll get, quite frankly and I think that’s higher than what it will end up at.
The plate appearances are easy enough. He was projected for 460 going into this season after having a season with 483 plate appearances. He had 487 plate appearances this year. No chance the plate appearances is moving, especially a year older. He will probably remain at 460 plate appearances. While his career average framing is -6.4, I will say that it is better in recent years. Nonetheless, it was -3.5 in just 600 innings last year, and -4.5 in 900 innings the year before, so we’re still talking about -4 runs in value.
So, my best estimate for Contreras’ value is 2.5 WAR in 460 PAs. When ZiPS releases its projections, it will probably be higher than that, but again it doesn’t look it uses framing. 2.5 is not a particularly great sign for a $100 million contract, I’ll say that right now. There is a little upside to that number given he could get up to 100-150 more plate appearances than that, but he’s exceeded 500 plate appearances once in his career, so not really a smart assumption.
Considering typical decline - which I will absolutely use for a 31-year-old catcher - he will get half a win worse per year. But supposedly, an automated strike zone will happen in 2024, and nobody will benefit more from this than Contreras or the team he’s playing for. I’m not sure I feel totally comfortable treating this as an absolute fact. Nonetheless, since he’s counted a -4 framer, that’s nearly half a win. Which means his five year outlook is 2.5, 2.4, 1.9, 1.4, 1.1. That’s 9.3 for 5 years, 8.2 WAR for 4 years.
The human umps staying would be 7.5 and 7. Taking into account that the automated strike zone is not a guarantee right now, but the “plan,” I feel a sort of risk averse approach should happen. Let’s say we’ll split the difference in both 2024 and 2025 to account for the possibility it doesn’t happen, and we’ll assume with 100 percent certainty it’s here by 2026. This is only a loss of 0.4 WAR, but having experienced the DH not happening for years, I do feel you need to factor in possible delays. So it’s 2.5, 2.2, 1.7, 1.4, 1.1 for the five-year outlook.
Last year, Ben Clemens ran the dollar per WAR figure during the lockout and the price of a win was $8.5 million. 10 of the top 25 free agents hadn’t signed at that point though and I don’t think his numbers were updated. But the price of a win prior to the pandemic was $9.5 million and I think that might be a safe assumption for this offseason honestly.
For a five-year deal, that’s $84.6 million. For a four-year deal, that’s $74.1 million. However, Contreras is going to come with a draft pick penalty. Not as much as in the past, but it should affect his free agent price. If my information is correct, the Cardinals would lose their 2nd round pick by signing Contreras. Assuming they don’t receive a competitive balance pick after the first round (I believe they are eligible for the one happening after the 2nd round, not the first though, could be wrong), the 2nd round pick should be #61 for the Cards. That is $4.6 million in value according to Fangraphs.
This means Contreras should fall well short of $100 million. The options would be 5 years, $80 million or 4 years, $69.5 million. We’ll just say 4 years, $70 million for nice, round numbers. Are you taking either deal, going with a cheaper free agent option, or going to the trade market?