I don’t mean to pick on Andrew Knizner. I really don’t. The Cardinals are very likely to head into the 2023 season with him as the backup catcher and Ivan Herrera as the next man up. Whether that means Herrera is going to replace Knizner or simply be an injury replacement and nothing more is certainly a question. But the Cardinals could and should try to improve the backup catcher for next year.
Knizner’s bat was supposed to be his calling card, but it has not currently arrived in the majors. The main reason is power. He posted decent walk and strikeout rates, but he has a career isolated power of just .084. Jon Jay has a higher ISO than that for his career. His K rate and BB rates are in fact good enough that a BABIP-driven line could lead to a good hitting line, except his xwOBAs are closer to his career 68 wRC+ than to something approaching an average hitting line. Essentially his BABIP of .255 for his career seems to be mostly deserved so far.
I’d be perfectly willing to ride it out, because I could see his bat coming around - he’s only had 553 career plate appearances. But well, the issue is that I’m not seeing the upside in finding out. If he was an average hitter in 2022, which would be amazing for a catcher, he would have improved his WAR from -0.3 to 0.2 in 293 PAs. I feel like it’s unreasonable to assume he’d improve more than that. His combination of defense and power make it very difficult for him to have a real upside.
Hopefully Knizner does improve. But let’s say he is what he is, because he is after all 28-years-old next year. You completely lose the advantage of Willson Contreras being able to play designated hitter if a below replacement level player is going to be in the lineup with him. Think about. Contreras is something like a 120 wRC+ hitter. Juan Yepez, Nolan Gorman, or Alec Burleson will be relatively close to that. They can DH. A lineup with Contreras and Knizner is going to be worse than a lineup with Contreras and one of those three. So to maximize the value of the roster, the Cards should essentially never DH Contreras and use him at catcher as much as possible so that a below replacement level player isn’t a part of the starting lineup.
That’s partly why I am confused at people who want to trade Ivan Herrera, because if he can come up and be a legit starting catcher caliber player, Contreras DH’ing makes way more sense. Who knows if it’ll be true when Herrera is ready, but for the sake of argument, if Herrera is ready on Opening Day, Contreras is probably a better hitter than those three (for now anyway) and now you actually might have the best lineup possible when Contreras is the DH. We signed a hitter first catcher. We need a better backup than we’re accustomed to because of that or we can’t truly maximize Contreras as a player.
Having said all of that, it’s clear the Cardinals do not think Herrera is ready. The Cardinals value game calling and they do not feel he is ready in his development at game calling. Fair enough. They clearly like Knizner’s game calling. He wouldn’t be a Cardinal if they didn’t. It’s the reason he will be the backup catcher in 2023. That and familiarity with the starting staff. How valuable is game calling? I don’t think we’ll ever know. It’s clear the Cardinals value it a lot.
On the bright side, we can draw a conclusion from this I think. The combination of Herrera being deemed not ready because of his game calling and making Knizner the backup catcher in 2023 means that they definitely value game calling. Maybe I’m jumping the gun here, but I think they’re satisfied with Contreras’ game calling then, because if he was really bad at it, I don’t think they would sign him. Now, I’m not saying he’s an expert at this based on the Cardinals signing him, but at the very least I think it’s reasonable to conclude they don’t feel it’s a detriment. He was paid basically in step with what his WAR is which more or less means we can take his WAR at face value.
Maybe I’m reading too much into these things, but that’s my reading of the situation.
So, if I don’t feel Knizner makes sense as the backup catcher and we accept as a given that they don’t feel Herrera is ready, who should be the backup catcher? Well, there a few routes to go.
I mostly covered this on Friday, although somewhat accidentally as my primary purpose was finding a way to trade Paul DeJong for an MLB player. It just so happened to include a few catchers. One option was a straight swap with Yasmani Grandal of the White Sox. His downside is basically what Andrew Knizner already is, as he had the worst season of his career and a similar rate of production to Knizner. If he bounced back, the Cards would have one of the best catching duos in baseball.
Another option, and significantly less likely - which is saying something for a trade that’s already unlikely - was including Danny Jansen with Yusei Kikuchi for DeJong and Burleson. Now in the case of Jansen, only something like this would spur me to trade for him, not actually using only prospects to get Jansen at this point, since he wouldn’t be the primary starter. But using the bad contract of Kikuchi to lessen his value would make sense.
The third trade I proposed was for Max Stassi. Stassi is a similar bounceback candidate to Grandal, although with a lower ceiling. He’s not the most exciting option, just because he is a defense-first catcher. He may very well be a worse hitter than Knizner in fact. His hitting projection is worse than Knizner, although Steamer’s hitting projection does seem a tad optimistic to me. But even with an 84 wRC+, he is seen as a 1 WAR player in 294 PAs - in other words an average player.
Free Agent Signings
I won’t lie. I’m all aboard the Gary Sanchez train. He definitely comes with issues. There’s no doubt about it. I believe his game-calling might be a problem, which if all my assumptions are correct, eliminates him from the running immediately. He does however carry some upside. He is a bat-first catcher with a 109 wRC+ for his career. But he’s actually not bad at defense either, at least using the numbers we do have. He trades below average defensive seasons with above average ones, but for his career he’s actually positive, barely. The problem lately is that his bat hasn’t been there.
In his last two seasons, he’s been worth 2.8 fWAR in 911 PAs, which would actually be pretty good for backup. And he has more upside than that, given his career .242 ISO. It hasn’t been that high in years, but in 2021, it was .219 and he hit 23 homers. Sanchez can probably get a starting gig or at least a place with more guaranteed playing time than in St. Louis, but I love the idea of grabbing him personally.
Roberto Perez is another defense-first catcher. In fact, he’s so good defensively, that despite the fact that his career wRC+ is 77, he has been worth 2.6 fWAR per 500 PAs for his career. Due to injuries, he’s had just 230 PAs in the past two seasons and he will be 34, so he doesn’t come without risk. But frankly, the injury thing isn’t as much of a problem for me since I would like to see Herrera get some MLB time.
Less options than I expected actually. Oh sure there a few options that may be an improvement over Knizner, but I don’t see a lot of value in picking them up because they aren’t very good and they aren’t that much better than Knizner. Tucker Barnhart, Jorge Alfaro, and Curt Casali are all experienced catchers who probably won’t be a lot better than replacement level. There just really isn’t a point. Knizner’s familiarity with the pitching staff and game-calling genuinely probably is more valuable than what those guys would provide.
I really do hope Knizner improves, because I want him to succeed. And he really hasn’t played that much - I don’t buy that he’s not been very good because of playing time, mostly because that excuse definitely can’t be used for 2022 - however if a position player had 478 in his last two seasons, I would definitely say that’s not a good sample. So there is some hope. All else being equal, I do think they should try to grab one of these catchers, because I doubt his defense can be blamed on needing more reps like his hitting could maybe be excused. But if Knizner can improve his hitting to close to average levels - and this I have no trouble envisioning personally - then he’s basically your average backup catcher.
I kind of talked myself into being fine with Knizner, which is good because he’s going to be the backup. Are you fine with Knizner, or do you want to improve with one of these players if you could?