After nineteen incredible seasons with Yadier Molina behind the plate, the Cardinals have a crucial decision to make regarding the backstop duties for 2023 and beyond. According to reports from The Athletic's Katie Woo, "the Cardinals will heavily pursue the catching market as their No. 1 priority" and that President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak is willing to consider all options to address the catching position. Let's take a look at some of the potential in house, free agent, and trade candidates to be the starting catcher on Opening Day.
Knizner will be entering his age 28 season in 2023 and has yet to establish himself as a full time catching option. Knizner is entering arbitration for the first time in his major league career, and figures to earn himself a raise based on his playing time in the 2022 season. MLB Trade Rumors' Matt Swartz projects Knizner to make $1MM, a reasonable salary for a backup catcher, a role that Knizner is likely to assume for the 2023 season. If the Cardinals are unable to find a catcher that fits their market value, let's dive into Knizner's 2023 projections, via Steamer.
Andrew Knizner 2023 projections:
91 WRC+, .120 ISO, 0.6 FWAR in 86 games, 327 plate appearances.
Steamer is clearly projecting a similar role for Knizner in the 2023 season. For his sake, Knizner did not do much during Molina's absences to establish himself as an everyday option for the future. Knizner slashed a pedestrian 215/301/300, with a career high 79 WRC+, 280 xwOBA, .085 ISO, and a -0.3 fWAR. The batted ball numbers back up Knizner's struggles. Knizner's hard hit rate was the lowest of his career at 33.2%, along with his barrel percentage and average exit velocity decreasing from 2021. As a prospect, Knizner was expected to be a bat first catcher, but has yet to fulfill expectations.
The Cardinals have historically prioritized defense behind the dish and Kiz's resume does not fit the bill. Per Baseball Savant, Knizner ranked in the 13th percentile in framing, an issue that may be resolved with robot umpires in 2024, but does not give the organization a ton of confidence in 2023 to steal some strikes for his pitchers. Knizner is unlikely to continue to fare well with baserunners, as his slower poptime of 2.04 did not reflect in his caught stealing numbers. Knizner was able to gun runners down at a slightly above league average rate of 25%, only 0.3% higher than the league average. There is likely to be some regression to the mean for Knizner, who has never profiled as a defensive first catcher. Without an inspiring hit tool, it is very unlikely for Knizner to enter the season as the incumbent starter for the Cardinals in the 2023 season.
Entering the 2023 season as the starting catcher would give the 22 year old a huge confidence boost and vote of confidence from the organization. Via Fangraphs, Herrera is heralded as a top 100 prospect, slotting in at #71 on their top 100 list. While it is fair to assume that Herrera has long term value for the Cardinals, Herrera has only played in 66 games at AAA and had a small sprinkle in the bigs, slashing 111/191/111 in 22 plate appearances. It is more likely that Herrera will feature in a part time role at the major league level and continue to receive time at AAA if the Cardinals make an external addition. Herrera has some tools to be excited about - he has walked at an 11.7% clip in his professional career and has an OPS of 772 - a highly encouraging skillset if it were to translate to the MLB. He profiles as an above average hitter, average fielder, with some raw athleticism that gives the Cardinals hope for more. Herrera is unlikely to start in 2023, but plans to be an integral part of the future.
If the Cardinals want to add a player that can contribute for a year and pass the baton to Herrera, there are a multitude of options in the free agent market. Most of these players are replacement level and have significant flaws, but represent players that can play 120 games and contribute to the team. Here are some potential candidates to fulfill that role: Martin Maldonado, Gary Sanchez, and Christian Vazquez. All of these players can likely be secured on one to two year deals for insignificant costs.
Most of these players represent a band-aid, for an excruciating need for a contending team. Maldonado represents a well respected veteran catcher that knows how to command a pitching staff and a locker room, as Astros manager Dusty Baker repeatedly voiced his appreciation for Maldonado's leadership on and off the field. Maldonado's leadership and defense fits the Cardinal archetype, but his bat is a serious concern for an organization who wants the best "all around" fit. Maldonado was in the first percentile of xwOBA, xBA, has a serious strikeout problem and his walk rate is on a steady decline. Maldonado represents a player that could be an awesome backup and defensive replacement, but potential is limited with his age, bat, and recent injuries.
Sanchez is certainly a player that the Cardinals aren't expected to consider. For the majority of his career, Sanchez has always had a narrative surrounding him being a terrible fielder. Sanchez has had issues blocking and has never been a great framer. However, his pop time has always been strong and he has a cannon of an arm, so there is some give and take with Sanchez behind the plate. The enticing part about Sanchez is his bat. While he will never return to his historic rookie season of production, Sanchez has a career WRC+ of 109 - a premium at the catcher position. His batted ball data supports this, as Sanchez ranked in the 92nd percentile of hard hit rate and barrel percentage and the 97th percentile of max exit velocity. He certainly has his limits, he strikes out a lot and will never hit for contact, but his power is very intriguing. Sanchez represents an option that is different from the prototype, but "The Kraken" has enough upside to consider him as a starting option.
Vazquez was traded to Houston at the trade deadline of the 2022 season and had his role reduced to being a backup, but his previous campaigns have shown that he can be a solid starter. Per Fangraphs, Vazquez has proved to be a positive framer, as in seven of his eight Major League seasons, he has rated as a positive framer behind the dish along with having a career 33.9% caught stealing percentage, ranking highly above the league average. For his career, Vazquez has a career WRC+ of 84, but it is strongly weighed down by his 2015 and 2017 seasons. Recently, Vazquez has hovered around being a league average and Steamer projects him to do the same in the 2023 season, with a projected 99 WRC+. There are certainly concerns with his bat, as some of his best seasons his wOBA has significant surpassed his xwOBA. For the Cardinals, Vazquez seems like the best budget blend of being an all around catcher, as he profiles as a median between Sanchez and Maldonado.
There are many players who could qualify as solid backups, such as Tucker Barnhart, Omar Narvaez, and Roberto Perez, but the Cardinals need a starter. Let's take a look at some of the prestigious prizes of the market at the catching position.
The Prizes of the Market
With the acquisition of Shea Langeliers in the Matt Olson trade, along with the team being in a rebuilding phase, Murphy represents a natural trade candidate. Murphy has three seasons of club control left and represents a potential long term option if Ivan Herrera does not pan out. Murphy has an absolute cannon with a 28% caught stealing percentage for his career that has gone up within his career, a quick pop time along with positive framing remarks. Murphy has significant value for his defense alone, which fails to acknowledge his above average bat. Murphy had an above average xwOBA, barrel percentage, hard hit rate, and even had a max exit velocity in the 94th percentile. Murphy's all around skill set certainly will be valuable, so let's look at what a hypothetical package could look like.
Per Baseballtradevalues.com (Numerical values in millions),
Cardinals acquire Sean Murphy (51.3)
Athletics acquire Tyler O'Neill (24.5), Alec Burleson (16.5), and Matt Liberatore (12.7)
While the website is certainly not perfect, this could represent a potential baseline for a Murphy trade. The Cardinals are rich in organizational depth in the outfield, with Lars Nootbaar, Jordan Walker, Juan Yepez, Dylan Carlson, and even Brendan Donovan figuring to be contributors in the grass. Oakland needs to replenish their depth within the entire organization, which makes it likely that Oakland would prefer multiple players. What do you think about this trade? Leave your thoughts below.
There have already been reports of the Blue Jays and Cardinals being natural trade partners, with the Blue Jays having an excess of catching depth with Jansen, Kirk, and top prospect Gabriel Moreno. I think it is fair to assume that the Jays will want to hang onto Moreno, a top prospect with eye popping exit velocity numbers. That leaves Kirk and Jansen for the Blue Jays to decide on. Kirk is younger and with more club control, making it reasonable to assume that Jansen is the most likely player to be available for the Jays. Jansen has only had one season playing more than 100 games during 2019, and during that season, he had below average offensive numbers. Since the promotion of Kirk, Jansen has split time and has feasted, with a breakout 2022 campaign posting a 141 OPS+. Jansen is a risky trade candidate, he has many questions regarding his ability to play everyday and if his offense is sustainable over an entire season. Jansen represents a player that could potentially play part time in the future with Herrera, but could also have untapped potential if he could produce at his 2022 rates for a full season. With the Cardinals having left handed bats available for trade, it makes sense for a trade to align. Here is a potential trade package:
Per Baseballtradevalues.com (Numerical values in millions)
Cardinals acquire Danny Jansen (26.6)
Blue Jays acquire Alec Burleson (16.5) and Dakota Hudson (6.3)
I am certainly lower on the value of Jansen than the website, but I believe that this trade makes sense for both teams. The Blue Jays are in dire need of a long term left handed batter and Burleson represents that. The inclusion of Dakota Hudson gives him a fresh start and a chance to earn a rotation spot in a Toronto rotation that is searching for pitching. Jansen represents a safer gamble for the Cardinals, as they are trading away positions of depth.
Stealing Contreras from the Cubs would be sweet. The Cardinals would have to surrender their second round draft choice and $500,000 of international bonus money to sign the star backstop who received the qualifying offer, but Contreras represents a significant offensive upgrade behind the plate. For his career, Contreras has been one of the league's best offensive catchers, with a career WRC+ of 118. Catchers are on a different pedestal from the league average WRC+ of 100, they typically hover around 90 as an average number. The impact of Contreras in the lineup is huge, as it adds a dynamic offensive threat to an offense that got no production from that position that was a top 10 offense by WRC+. Contreras has some concerns behind the plate, as he has always been graded as a poor framer. However, Contreras has always had a quick pop time to pair with a cannon of an arm, resulting in a career 30% caught stealing. For the Cardinals, Contreras represents a huge boost to a lineup that has had difficulty scoring runs in the postseason. Contreras will require a strong financial commitment, which leads to some questions about how he will age over the contract. Fortunately for the Cardinals, they have a bright prospect in Ivan Herrera who could eventually ease into playing time and allow Contreras to DH, something that he did in 35.7% of his starts in 2022. Contreras is a game changer who will surely demand a lot of money, leading for my contract prediction to be: 4 years, 96 million, 1MM per year in incentives.
This contract gives Contreras a chance to be a nine figure catcher if he produces at his career levels. 100 million guaranteed for a catcher is an impressive accomplishment and figures to be a competitive offer on the open market for a player that has hinted about wanting to play in Busch Stadium.
After considering all of the potential candidates, what is your favorite option for the catcher position? Do you want to spend big in capital on Murphy or Contreras, or would you rather save on a cheaper one year bandaid to pave the way for Ivan Herrera? Leave your thoughts below.