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Contreras, Herrera to share a new era

For the sake of this post, the s in Contreras is silent.

Miami Marlins v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

On Friday, the unexpected happened: Andrew Knizner was nontendered and the Cardinals officially ushered in the Ivan Herrera era, which is just very fun to say. I should say that’s what it looks like from the outside looking in. Theoretically, they could still trade Herrera and pick up a backup from free agency. That seems unlikely given that they probably keep Knizner in that situation.

But to use one example, what if for some reason the White Sox are really enamored with Herrera and Herrera is most of the way to a trade for Dylan Cease? The Cardinals probably make that trade. Now I just use that hypothetical to suggest they probably trade Herrera if it’s an offer they can’t refuse, just that I can’t imagine they get one of those. So the assumption is Herrera is the backup catcher in 2024.

While I would say that even most casual fans of this baseball team probably are aware of Ivan Herrera (thanks in part to us annoying diehard fans who complained to them that Herrera wasn’t playing more), I did think it would be fun to look at his history and how he got here. I typically do these kinds of profiles for players the Cardinals recently acquired, but it seems fitting to do one of these now that he really is going to be a Cardinal, as opposed to a probable trade piece.

Near as I can tell, Ivan Herrera was a very under the radar signing. He was a part of the 2016 international signing class, however when they initially released the 13 players they had signed, he was not a part of that list (which included Johan Oviedo). His signing was announced about two weeks later with two other players along with Jonatan Machado and Erik Pena. Machado got nearly all of the ink among those three, being signed for $2.3 million. I don’t think it was even known Herrera was a catcher, as Brian Walton of The Cardinal Nation simply mentions that he is a new name to be connected to the Cardinals.

For the 2016-2017 international free agent signing class, of the 10 players whose bonuses were known to the public, Herrera had the second lowest figure at $200,000. Though to be fair, there is a good chance the 8 guys with unknown bonuses were below that number. Still in a class with three names who received $1 million or more, including Johan Oviedo and Randy Arozarena, Herrera simply was ignored.

Herrera debuted in the Dominican Summer League during the 2017 season and destroyed the ball as a 17-year-old. He had just one homer and a .106 ISO, but he walked 9% of the time, struck out just 17.9% of the time, and thanks to a .415 BABIP, had a 155 wRC+. He was not mentioned by John Sickels of Minor League Ball (in his last year writing for the site, sadly) when it came down to the Cardinals top prospect list, and he mentioned 45 names. He was mentioned by Fangraphs, though not officially ranked, with Eric Longenhagen naming in a group of players “in order of preference” which essentially suggests he thought he was the 37th best prospect in the system.

“He has a good shot to catch and make a lot of contact, with power a long-term possibility if his lithe 6-foot-1 frame fills out.”

Herrera first officially became a prospect of note after his 2018 season in the Gulf Coast League. He basically repeated his DSL performance with fewer strikeouts and more power, still with just one homer but a .152 ISO this time. His wRC+ was 160. The only measure we had of his defense at this point was that he caught 40% of runners stealing in the DSL and 32% in the GCL, though I don’t have the league average rates to know how good that is. I’m sure it’s not bad though. He also allowed seven passed balls in about half the innings of the DSL (where he also had 7 passed balls).

He was ranked the #23 prospect by Cardinal Nation and 32nd by Fangraphs, officially. Fangraphs ranked just 23 players in 2018 and 40 players in 2019. Turns out you need to do more than play well in rookie ball to become a legitimate prospect.

“Physically and technically mature, Herrera is more advanced than he is prospecty and his tools are more in line with a backup catcher than one who clearly projects as a starter.”

Then 2019 happened. It feels inaccurate to say he broke out - look what he did in the two rookie leagues - but a 19-year-old doing what Herrera did in Low A ball as a catcher is a lot more trustworthy. He had shown a good eye, but nothing special in the two rookie leagues, especially given the control problems teenagers tend to have, but in Low A, he was suddenly Carpenterian. He walked 12% of the time and he did not really strike out more to get that BB rate, at just a 19.2% clip. He didn’t necessarily show more power, but he certainly showed more home run power, perhaps more important. He homered 8 times in 69 games with a .137 ISO. Once again, despite below average speed, he ran a high BABIP (.337).

He got a promotion to High A and still managed an above average line, albeit with a professional high K rate (24.6%) and professional low BB rate (7.7%) while homering once with no other extra base hits over a period of 18 games. With the exception of his MLB stint in 2022, both his BB rate and K rate remain the worst of his professional career. This guy has an advanced approach at the plate. Anyway, the end result was still a 102 wRC+, thanks to a .357 BABIP. Did the prospect writers change their tune? Uhhh yes.

Herrera jumped to the #4 prospect on MLB Pipeline and #4 by Fangraphs. He was #105 on Fangraphs top 100. Herrera was sent to the Arizona Fall League despite just 18 games at High A, and he hit well there too, batting .324 with more walks than strikeouts, though very little power. Baseball Prospectus had this to say in it’s 2020 issue:

“Teenage catchers are always a high-variance quantity, and Herrera is a ways away from being a big-league ready defensive backstop. But his bat is promising and if he can do enough to stick behind the dish then he has a bright future ahead.”

The questions about his defense weren’t necessarily a worry about him having to move off the position just that it’s hard to know how good a catcher is defensively in the minors while watching just a few games. He caught 30.8% of runners stealing at both Low A and High A combined, though he also had 11 errors and 13 passed balls in 699 innings caught, a career high at the time. The errors were new, the passed balls were in line with his DSL numbers and better than his GCL numbers. VEB’s A.E. Schafer had this to say about his defense:

Going by the few firsthand reports I have, though, he seems to have promising tools and just needs repetition, with his catch and throw skills ahead of the pitch framing. From what little I’ve seen of Herrera behind the plate, it looks like he has very good bounce in his legs. He’s quick up out of the crouch and gets rid of the ball quickly. Receiving wise, I don’t know. I’m terrible at judging those finer points of catcher defense, honestly, and so I won’t go too far out on a limb trying to read Herrera’s framing ability. He’s not wildly stabbing unless the pitch comes in somewhere it clearly wasn’t supposed to, but that’s about the best I can do for you.

Then 2020 happened. Herrera was a part of the 60-man player pool, but with Matt Wieters backing up Yadier Molina and Andrew Knizner knocking on the door step, he had virtually no shot at getting playing time. As you would expect, his prospect status didn’t really change. He didn’t play, most other prospects didn’t.

Herrera’s 18 games and AFL experience (which was 10 games backing up Tyler Stephenson) was deemed enough to be put in AA. By this point he had to put on the 40 man roster, and that was probably also a consideration. Herrera had what I call a context good season. What does that mean? It means he had a good season if you put his season in the proper context. He had an average hitting line with a low BABIP at 21-years-old as a catcher in AA. The low BABIP is either a talent thing or a luck thing.

Interestingly, his prospect ranking didn’t really change after this season. This is interesting because of what happens after 2022. But MLB Pipeline ranked him 4th, Fangraph when they got around to the ranking, ranked him 2nd in the system and The Cardinal Nation ranked him 4th.

He then basically did the same thing but with a great BABIP in AAA in 2023. And this is I guess when prospect fatigue kicked in. He fell to 7th on The Cardinal Nation, Fangraphs, and fell out of the top 5 by MLB Pipeline too, and this was despite Nolan Gorman graduating, one of the players ahead of him on all lists. The system may have gotten better, but that’s not all of it. In a weird way, the fact that he was a catcher seemed to hurt him more than it helped him, which is just bizarre to me.

Here is my theory: when the Cardinals signed Willson Contreras, prospect writers thought “well Cardinals don’t think highly of Ivan Herrera anymore, which has to mean something.” The reports on his defense also seemed to shift.

“He’s always performed at or above a league average level with the bat and is an especially gifted contact hitter for a catcher, but Herrera’s defense has plateaued and remains below average across the board”

Making no particular remark on his defense, but - and this is admittedly a little bit unfair - but scouts had no idea Harrison Bader or Tommy Edman were near as good defensively as they were - and scouting 2B or CF is waaaaaaaay easier than scouting catcher. And part of me wonders if a lot of the scouting about his defense was simply because the Cardinals were not promoting him despite him being an above average hitter.

Obviously there was something about Herrera’s game the Cardinals felt wasn’t ready, but it seemed to have more to do with game planning, something he admitted himself. In a piece in the middle of the 2023 season, he said:

“The biggest adjustments he made after that experience weren’t even in the batter’s box. The exposure to the amount of information and pregame preparation that goes into game planning for the pitching staff and breaking down opposing hitters and lineups proved somewhat overwhelming for Herrera last season.”

I am not arguing he is an above average defensive catcher, but it doesn’t seem like his defense is bad enough for the prospect fall he had. Nobody seems to doubt his bat. Baseball Prospectus wrote this about his defense in 2022:

Defensively, he’s a good receiver and blocker with a strong, if sometimes inconsistent arm. He’s also chock full of intangibles, none more apparent than his command of the English language, which is particularly impressive given how young he is and that he signed out of Panama just five years ago. Even if he’s not a burgeoning All-Star, he’ll make a suitable replacement for Yadier Molina in 2023

And then they wrote this about him in 2023:

It was business as usual for Herrera in 2022—he once again made consistent contact, walked a lot, and generally looked like an above-average hitter against pitchers who were several years older. Herrera sure looks like Molina physically behind the plate—their listed heights and weights are nearly identical—but their defensive metrics will be very easy to tell apart. It’s not a slight to say Herrera doesn’t look like one of the best framers to ever live. Still, even after setting aside the shoes he’s filling, he’s probably going to be an average backstop for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, he has a good chance to at least be Molina’s equal at the plate, which should sustain him enough to be a second-division regular.

Unless I’m misreading that, an average backup when you’re high on his bat does not suggest to be second-division regular. I have never liked defining players by if they can start on great teams, because great teams have bad players and especially average players starting for them all the time. No team doesn’t have at least one or two positions that are merely fine or worse.

It doesn’t really matter in any case because all he has to do is back up Willson Contreras. He meets that standard. He should be an improvement over Andrew Knizner and every little bit of extra value counts when it comes making the Cardinals a better team in 2024.