On Monday, I went through each position player either in or near the major leagues who might be traded and discussed who makes sense to trade based upon what they’d bring back, their value to the 2024 team, and how easy it would be to replace them. In that article, I mentioned the catching situation has an overflow depth problem of its own and that I wouldn’t address that then. Well, today I’m addressing that.
Hypothetically, the position players do not literally need to be traded. The 40 man, at least to my eyes, has plenty of room for them all to stay and there are no issues with players running out of options. It’s just the most logical solution to the pitching problem and a waste of resources to not trade them.
I bring this up because catching is different. Someone has to be traded. Willson Contreras will be in the second year of his five year deal, Andrew Knizner will be coming off a career year and making somewhere between $2 and $3 million, and Ivan Herrera will be out of options. Three catchers who need to be in the major leagues, two spots for them.
There are two solutions that don’t involve trading anyone, but I don’t think the Cardinals want to do either and in fact highly doubt they will even consider either. The first is simply to burn Andrew Knizner’s final option and send him to AAA until he’s needed. The other option is to carry three catchers.
Bringing Knizner back only to send him to AAA doesn’t have much of a point. Knizner will have 4 years, 21 days of service time, and if he’s sent down for a month and a half, he’ll fall under 5 years. Which means the Cardinals will have essentially 3 years until Knizner naturally becomes a free agent. If the Cardinals commit to Herrera, Knizner doesn’t have a future with the Cardinals. Unless they want to carry 3 catchers until Knizner becomes a free agent.
Which brings me to the three catcher idea. I don’t know of a team that has ever actually carried three catchers for an entire season. It’s usually a temporary thing. The Cardinals tried it earlier this year and the result was Tres Barrera basically never came to the plate. Obviously, they wouldn’t completely bury the third catcher in this situation, but it’s nearly impossible to find regular ABs for three catchers. And again, same point I made above: what’s the point? You can’t just carry three catchers for two full seasons, so at some point you have to commit.
So someone has to get traded. All three are candidates to get traded, some more likely than others. One catcher has a fairly straightforward situation, one that I can more easily guess what his value on the trading market is. The other two might as well be guesses. Let’s approach trading each.
Because of pitch calling and because Willson Contreras wasn’t traded last deadline, I genuinely don’t know how to value Contreras. I don’t mean trade value. I mean value. Willson Contreras has been a 2 fWAR player and is projected to finish with 2.5 fWAR. If you think game calling has zero value. Basically part of the difficulty with Contreras is that I know Paul Goldschmidt is 3.5 fWAR player, that market will probably value him as such, and I can work out his trade value from there. Fangraphs says Contreras is a 2.5 WAR player, but I have no confidence that’s the value he brings to the team. So I can’t figure out how other teams would value him, and I can’t guess his trade value.
How about this? I think we can all agree Contreras is probably not an above average game caller, so I will give you three scenarios and that’s his possible trade value. The scenario where either he’s completely average or a team completely disregards came calling, in other words his actual fWAR. Then a middle ground of sorts, a team who thinks his game calling cost half a win. Then worst case, it costs a full win.
So first thing’s first, ZiPS projected Contreras to have a 3.5 WAR season in 477 PAs. Here’s where it gets confusing. ZiPS projected a 121 wRC+, -2.6 defense, and -1.1 baserunning. Contreras currently has a 118 wRC+ so he’s pretty close to matching it and if he continues trending the way he has, he’ll surpass it. But he won’t come close to 3.5 WAR. His defense and baserunning are both underperforming, but that’s only costing him a few runs. The real culprit is that he DHs a lot, so he’s getting hit with that penalty.
Why do I bring this up? Well despite a situation where Contreras is set to underperform his WAR by a win, he nearly matches his hitting projection, he will surpass his PA projection, and his defense and baserunning might have a worse projection, but not by a ton. So weirdly, I don’t know that his 2024 projection - using no input from this current season - will be affected by much. Let’s knock off a couple for the underperforming defense and baserunning and his 2024 projection becomes 2.8 and 2025 becomes 2.2. I’ll apply the 0.5 decline therefter.
So his “normal” projection is 7.9 WAR for the next four years, or $79 million in value. His game calling is bad projection is 5.9 WAR, and his game calling is terrible is 3.9 WAR. Even if his game calling really is terrible, I don’t really think there’s a chance that’s what his trade value is, so I’ll discard that in this exercise. Point being we have a $79 million value and a $59 million one. Contreras is getting paid $77.5 million over the next four years. Market value contract for the normal projection, an underwater contract in the latter.
If game calling is not factored into his trade value, you can sell his contract off, but not really get anything in return. But if you add just $10 million to the deal, you should be able to get a 45 future value prospect. The more you add, the better the prospect. The Cardinals dumped Mike Leake for nothing, so I suspect this would be the route instead of adding money.
If he’s an underwater contract, the Cardinals would have to add money. If they want an actual return, they’d have to pay for something like $25 million, and the prospect still wouldn’t be that great. But that’s just over $6 million per year, which would be doable. If they want the appearance of a prospect just to get a name in return, they would owe about $18 million, let’s say $20 million. So might as well throw in an extra $1 million a year if they can get a better prospect.
This scenario is not going to happen, but it’s an approach the Cardinals could take. And if they somehow do take this option, I suspect they will make it as much of a salary dump as possible, and not actually get anything in return. But again, I would bet a lot of money Contreras isn’t the one getting traded.
Knizner is a little different. Maybe WAR undervalues him. It would almost have to for him to have trade value. And yes, I realize he has a 107 wRC+ this year, but a 107 wRC+ over 200+ plate appearances is going to be dwarfed by his other 550 PAs in the majors for next year’s projection. I would be surprised if his hitting projection took a huge leap. He’s a replacement level projection if WAR doesn’t undervalue him.
Best case scenario, Knizner is valued as a 0.5 WAR backup, and the Cardinals can trade him for some very minor prospect, someone with $1 or $2 million in value (40 future value pitcher). Likely to become something? No. But it’s something, and that’s more than I would have assumed prior to this season.
Herrera has a 146 wRC+ in AAA, so it will be a little inexplicable if he isn’t considered a top 100 prospect. But he doesn’t seem to be one. Unlike with Contreras and Knizner though, I can’t exactly evaluate his value on the open market. He won’t be traded for his best possible value. He will be a part of a package for a starting pitcher, in all likelihood.
Now as to what starting pitcher, that I couldn’t guess. I think he’s too much value for any of the one-year guys. He’s worth somewhere between $10 and $15 million in prospect value, and I don’t think any one year guy has that surplus. So presumably, he’s the second piece for a trade for a cost controlled starter from the Mariners or Marlins.
What are the Cardinals’ goals at the catcher position entering 2024? Because that’s the key to it all. There are three possible goals the Cardinals could have, and each goal comes with trading a different catcher.
#1 Get out from a contract they don’t want
If this is their main goal - realizing they don’t want Contreras long-term - then they will do their best to trade Contreras for anything. If they want to free up some money to sign pitchers and commit to Ivan Herrera as the catcher of the future, then clearly their goal was to get rid of Willson Contreras’ contract.
#2 Do the most efficient thing to maximize their assets
If they look at the three catchers, how do they get the most value out of them? Trade Ivan Herrera. He is easily the answer to this question. Knizner and Contreras will not return much. If you have three options and one of the options returns actual value, you grab that value. In this scenario, he’s part of the reason they get a cheap starter with multiple years of control. However high you are on Herrera, that starter will bring more value to the 2024 Cardinals than Herrera.
Plus, from a catching depth perspective, the Cardinals are well positioned to replace Herrera as the next man up. Defensive whiz Pedro Pages might be added to the 40 man roster, and could be set up to function as Contreras’ future backup. 22-year-old Jimmy Crooks has a 126 wRC+ in High A and right on his tail is Leonardo Bernal, just 19-years-old. The Cardinals can roll with Contreras and Knizner for another year, and see if anybody is ready to steal Knizner’s job.
#3 Maximize on field contributions from the catcher position
With all due respect to Andrew Knizner, Willson Contreras and Ivan Herrera is the best combo of the three catchers. He has upside and could overtake Contreras as the primary catcher before the end of Contreras’ contract. Knizner is a good backup catcher, but I don’t think he’s a strong choice for Catcher 1B. He’s good if he’s the traditional backup, but if he’s splitting catching duties, I want a better catcher. Even in his career year, he has 0.5 fWAR in 189 PAs.
The Cardinals have to choose one of these paths, and I expect they will. My personal pick is to trade Knizner and install Herrera as catcher 1B. I am curious on what Knizner would return, and my only worry is that he doesn’t actually have any trade value. It’s also hard to resist if Herrera is a key reason the Cardinals land Logan Gilbert or someone like him.
Actually, you know what they really should do. If they can, they should trade Knizner quickly in the offseason for what they can get. And then, in trade negotiations for a starter, it’ll look like Ivan Herrera is a part of the catching plan (because he will be), and maybe that gives the Cardinals more leverage, Herrera might be a little more desirable and be seen as more of a sacrifice than if he’s on the outside looking in where it seems like they have to trade him, and maybe you can include less with him to get a starter. Then pick your best defensive catcher on the free agent market to back up Contreras.
Who is the best catcher to trade?