SAN DIEGO — The Cardinals have tried to develop a number of catcher-of-the-future candidates over the last few years of Yadier Molina’s career, but they chose instead to replace him via free agency, giving former Cub Willson Contreras a five-year, $87.5 million deal that will fill the spot in a completely different way from how Molina did.
Contreras is a bat-first catcher, which is a big shift from Molina, whose value over the last nine years has almost all been in his glove — he had just one above-average season at the plate during that span. Contreras was one of the best offensive catchers in baseball last year, ranking only behind Adley Rutschman and Willson’s own brother, William, in wRC+ (minimum 300 PA). He makes a lot of very hard contact, ranking third among catchers in hard-hit percentage and posting the single highest exit velocity for any catcher last year at 116.2 mph (which is more fun trivia than meaningful info), which helps make up for his high swing-and-miss rates.
He’s also reasonably patient for a catcher, and gets hit by a lot of pitches; over the last five years, his OBP has been a full 50 points higher than Molina’s, which would have amounted to about 21 more times on base per 162 games over the retired Cardinals great. He’s not the framer Yadier was, or the receiver, and we could probably argue all day about what Molina’s game-calling was worth, but what we can measure says the Cardinals just added between three and 3.5 wins with one signing, which, at this AAV, seems like a great deal — one the Cubs probably should have matched.
Cardinals signing Willson Contreras to 5-year deal
There’s some age risk here, as catching is a brutal position, of course, and one of Yadi’s most valuable traits was his ability to carry such a high workload right up until his final season — he caught at least 110 games in his age-34, 35, 36, and 38 seasons, missing age 37 because of the pandemic. The Contreras deal only takes him through age 35, and it’s not that uncommon for catchers to still catch regularly through that age, but he also offers a bit of an out because his bat is valuable enough to play somewhere else. If he’s a part-time catcher and part-time DH in the last year of his deal, he will probably still be worth the roster spot and has a reasonable chance to produce enough to justify the salary.
I’m a little surprised this is all he got, because he’s a very good, very athletic player, and he was by far the best catching option available in free agency. Texas could have used him, although we can’t fault them for not spending this winter. The Yankees could have used him. The Padres, the Astros, and Angels all have catching prospects ready for the majors, but Contreras would be a short-term upgrade over any of them. And the Cubs don’t really have anyone on hand to replace him.
Which leads us to Sean Murphy, the belle of the catching ball now that Contreras signed. The A’s have made it clear they’re open to trade offers, but in my very brief time in the lobby at the winter meetings, I heard the asking price was quite high — as it probably should be. Murphy was worth 3.5 rWAR/5.1 fWAR last year, with the latter figure giving him almost a full win for framing. He’s also got three years of team control remaining, all at arbitration salaries, which are very likely to underpay him relative to his production.
I’d be expecting a return similar to what the A’s got for Matt Olson last offseason, although in this case, there’s a bit more urgency with catching prospect Shea Langeliers as ready for the majors as he’s going to get. I don’t mean to cheer on the teardown in Oakland, but in for a penny, in for a pound — if you’re going to dump Chapman and Olson and Montas and Bassitt and others for prospects, there’s no sense keeping Murphy around. And, just to throw it out there, the Cubs have some serious prospect depth from which to try to trade for him.
Option B for teams in search of catching help could be in Toronto, although I’m not sure how motivated the Blue Jays are to move one of their three catching options right now. Gabriel Moreno is one of the best prospects at any position in the minors, and he’s already a good defender who should be consistently one of the best gloves in the majors behind the plate. Alejandro Kirk caught more games than anyone except for Murphy last year, and ranked fifth in wRC+ and seventh in fWAR among all catchers in 2022, although his body doesn’t project to age well over the longer term. And Danny Jansen is one of the best backup catchers in baseball, probably overstretched as a starter (especially with his injury history) but a good enough hitter to post the best wRC+ of any catcher who had 200 or more PA last year.
The Jays could wait to see if Murphy comes off the board, but even now, the market for one of their guys — Kirk would be my pick as the best one to trade, despite his obvious popularity — should be very strong.
Finally, Iván Herrera is the forgotten man in all of this. Supposedly the Cardinals’ catcher of the future, and only 23 this upcoming season, he has been supplanted by Contreras after just 18 at-bats in the big leagues last year. Herrera hit .268/.374/.396 in Triple A last year with an 18.7 percent strikeout rate, although his swing got flatter last year and he put the ball on the ground too often, going from 17 homers in 98 games in 2021 to just six in 65 games last year.
He makes enough hard contact that he would be an ideal candidate for a team with success altering players’ swings to boost their launch angles, especially since his eye is strong and he’s an average defender right now. The Cardinals do have other needs, like an outfielder with a higher floor to his 2023 production, and Herrera would be a valuable part of any trade they might want to pull.
(Photo: Matt Dirksen / Getty Images)