I’m back with the last part of my upper level prospects series after a brief hiatus to discuss the St. Louis Cardinals international class. This time I’ll be focusing on catchers, and, to be up front with you, there’s not a ton of opportunity for minor league catchers this year. At least not yet.
Willson Contreras is locked in as the starter for at least the next few seasons but he’s never been known as a better than average defender and Andrew Knizner has been worth -1.7 fWAR in his career and has just one option left. So, a starting role may not be up for grabs but a backup spot in attainable, and a backup role means playing time at the catcher position.
Let’s take a look at the top candidates to compete for that role or to serve an injury replacements. Up first is a prospect we all know very well.
I recently provided the scouting reports for The Cardinal Nation’s top 50 prospect countdown and as I was scouting Herrera, I noticed that he never fully got comfortable with his swing.
This is what his swing looked like for most of the year (with some small tweaks from month-to-month):
And this is what his swing looked like in September:
Ivan Herrera crushes a single to right pic.twitter.com/TzM0HVe2v4— Kyle Reis, 58% Neanderthal (@kyler416) September 7, 2022
The difference here is clear. At the end of the year he had a little bit of Marcel Ozuna action in his set-up with his hands starting further out and the bat pointing straight up. That wasn’t the case earlier in the year. His stance and his load changed, and I don’t know what he was looking for, though my guess is some extra loft and power.
But that’s not all! Towards the end of September, he got even more aggressive with his new actions. You can see that in the second half of the video below.
Moises Gomez X Ivan Herrera with home runs today!— Memphis Redbirds (@memphisredbirds) September 28, 2022
Thanks to our home run partners at @IntlPaperCo for their $25,000 donation to Literacy Mid-South this season! Memphis hit 197 long balls on the year, second most in franchise history. pic.twitter.com/3AOFQimquD
And that’s still not all! He toned down the movement this winter while he was playing in Panama. It’s an obvious change:
So...I don’t really know what to think about Ivan Herrera the hitter. He makes a lot of contact and takes a lot of walks which is a good sign that he can be a solid OBP guy as he matures but his swing is clearly still a work in progress. He also has some pop in his bat that doesn’t always play because of his groundball-heavy approach. That’s why I said that he could be tweaking his swing to find some more loft.
Over half of his batted balls last year were on the ground which is a large reason for his measly .128 ISO in Triple-A. But the good news is that he does actually have some decent power in his bat; he just doesn’t get to it consistently.
Herrera averaged 85 mph off the bat last year with above average top-end EVs (110.6 max, 103.4 90th). He’s a hit over power player but there is power potential for sure. Also needs to work on his launch angle optimization as he hits too many GBs for the power to manifest— Kareem (@KareemSSN) January 5, 2023
So I do think Herrera’s bat is nowhere near its peak but it will still need a lot of work to actually reach its peak. This is really why I think Ivan Herrera needs more time in the minor leagues as I want to see him get comfortable with his swing and find a way to access his power before getting thrown against the best competition possible.
And the Cardinals can now afford to give him time with Willson Contreras under contract for 5 years. The problem is that he only has 1 option year left which means he really only has one more season to get shielded from major league pitchers and the public eye. And I think the Cardinals should give him the full year in Memphis.
Now, that may change if he shows some consistent improvements with his swing. If that happens, then I would be all for giving him a chance to prove that he’s major league ready as he needs to make the Opening Day roster come 2024. But I’m honestly not too worried about him proving himself this year. And that’s because, barring a significant downturn in performance, Herrera should be the backup catcher in 2024 anyways.
His only real competition at this point is a catcher who has batted just above the Mendoza line in his career and has been worth almost -2 WAR. If Knizner doesn’t show some serious progress this year then it’s almost a sure bet that Herrera will be an upgrade, and, at this point in their careers, Herrera has more promise for the future.
So, in my mind, Herrera is the backup to Contreras in 2024. He just is. So, with that in mind, I would like to see Herrera get as much time to develop in Triple-A as possible.
Besides his bat, the reports I’ve seen on his defense are say that he could use some more development there too. So there’s no harm in giving him the year to work on both sides of his game. The Cardinals have a valuable starting catcher who gives them a clear upgrade from last year and keeping Knizner as the backup gives him one last year to prove himself.
Herrera is still a promising prospect and I’m not down on him at all even though I do think he could use another season of Triple-A ball. The pieces for him to a productive everyday catcher are still there, they just need a little more coaxing out and the Cardinals can afford to bring him along slowly with the idea of him eventually succeeding Contreras.
Herrera is still just 22 years old after all and Contreras may not be an everyday catcher in the back-end of his contract. So Herrera could be in Triple-A for his age 23 season and then a backup catcher in his age 24 season. After that, who knows? But this is the path I would take with Herrera.
Beyond Herrera, the Cardinals have another former AFL representative in Pedro Pages who played in the AFL this fall and reached Triple-A Memphis for the first time in 2023. His bat took a step back this year as he was a below average hitter at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels while his strikeout rate jumped to over 30%.
Pages does take a decent amount of walks and he sprays line drives all over the park but his power and his hit tool both grade as below average tools right now.
This is Pedro Pages at his best. He’s not going to be a guy with a lot of over-the-fence power but, as you can see, he’s a big-bodied backstop who isn’t going to have a ton of success hitting ground balls. He’s going to have the most success if he can maintain a high walk rate and a line drive heavy approach while getting at least a handful of his fly balls to go over the fence.
Offensive isn’t really his calling card, though; defense is. Baseball America recently named him the top defensive catcher in the system and that’s really what gives him the potential to be a backup catcher in the future. He’ll need to prove that he can at least be a capable hitter but defense-first catchers can often profile as decent backup catchers.
I don’t expect to see Pages play in the majors this year and he may even return to Double-A since the Cardinals recently brought in some veteran catching depth, presumably to backup Ivan Herrera in Memphis. So that gives the Cardinals two options. They can either go with three catchers in Memphis or they can keep Pages in Springfield where he can be the regular starter.
The latter would be my choice but Pages is the most promising catcher between Herrera and the Jimmy Crooks/Leonardo Bernal duo that played in Single-A in 2022. A strong year could see Herrera put his name in the mix for a debut in 2024 but if he doesn’t impress then he could get passed by Jimmy Crooks. After an AFL assignment, it’s clear the Cardinals have a good impression of Pages but the Cardinals have a crowded minor league depth chart. His defense sets him apart but his bat will need to develop if he wants a chance at a major league role in the future.
I don’t expect that chance to come next year, though, (but there’s always a chance) as he is not yet on the 40-man roster and is behind Ivan Herrera and the next player I will discuss.
That Tres Barrera signing was perfectly timed. I was wondering all week who else I would write about in this article besides Herrera and Pages, so I want to give a big shoutout to the Cardinals for coming through. I know they were thinking of me when they made this move.
Barrera is the classic veteran depth signing the Cardinals make every year to add a backup catcher to the Triple-A ranks. I fully expect Barrera to be the backup to Ivan Herrera but if the Cardinals need a short-term injury replacement behind the plate, I actually expect Barrera to get the call. That would allow for Herrera to keep some consistency instead of going up and down and getting limited playing time.
Barrera isn’t a flashy signing but he is solid defensively and has 51 games of major league experience. He was even worth 0.6 fWAR in 107 plate apperances in 2021. Granted, that came with an average exit velocity of 82 mph so I don’t imagine he’s ever going to provide consistently average production at the plate but he has added more value in his career than Andrew Knizner. I don’t say that to hate on Knizner but simply to show that Barerra should be a solid Triple-A backstop who could fil-in in a pinch.
Last year, the Cardinals had guys like Andrew Romine and Austin Allen to fill a similar role and this year it will be the 28-year-old Barrera who will do so.
Barrera once ranked as high as #11 in the Nationals system and was even ranked 28th in the system halfway through last year. In their write-up, Baseball America called him “a solid all-around defensive catcher”, and “a very good athlete” while giving him high marks for his plate discipline and hitting mechanics. The exit velocity is definitely a concern as he’s never hit the ball hard at the major league level but he has everything else he needs to be a strong upper level depth backstop.
There may not be a lot of opportunity for minor league catchers this year but that’s okay. The Cardinals have their long term starter, a young and promising potential everyday catcher in Triple-A, upper level depth, and two more young and promising catchers in the lower levels. Catcher is certainly a strength of the system and it’s not insane to think that the Cardinals have 3 of 4 future major league catchers in the system right now.
This is the last part of this series as I’ve covered starters, relievers, infielders, outfielders, and now catchers. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about some of the young players we may see in the upcoming season.
As always, thanks for reading, VEB. Enjoy your Sunday. I’ll be back on Tuesday with a new topic for you.