SAN DIEGO — The Cardinals have attempted to develop a slew of catcher-of-the-future candidates in the final years of Yadier Molina’s career, but they instead opted to replace him through free agency, giving up the former Cub Willson Contrera’s five-year, $87.5 million deal that will fill the vacancy in a very different way than Molina.
Contreras is a bat catcher, which is a big change from Molina, whose value has been almost entirely in his glove over the past nine years – he’s only had one above-average season on his plate in that span. Contreras was one of baseball’s top offensive catchers last year, ranking only behind Adleyrutschman and Willson’s own brother William in wRC+ (minimum 300 PA). He makes a lot of very hard contact, ranks third among catchers in percentage of people hit hard, and recorded the highest exit speed of any catcher last year at 116.2 mph (which is more fun trivia than meaningful info), which helps offset its high swing-and-miss rates.
He’s also fairly patient for a catcher and gets hit by a lot of pitches; Over the past five years, his OBP has been a full 50 points higher than Molina’s, which would have been about 21 times more on a per 162 game basis than the great retired Cardinals. He’s not the framer that 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 are just between three and Added 3.5 wins, which at that AAV seems like a lot – one the Cubs probably should have hit.
Cardinals sign Willson Contreras to 5-year deal
There is some age risk here as catching is of course a brutal position and one of Yadi’s most valuable qualities was his ability to carry such a heavy workload up until his final season – he caught at least 110 games at 34, 35, 36 and 38 seasons, missing age of 37 due to the pandemic. The Contreras deal only gets him to the age of 35, and it’s not uncommon for catchers to still catch regularly up to that age, but he also offers a bit of an out because his racquet is valuable enough to play elsewhere . If he’s a part-time catcher and part-time DH in the last year of his deal, he’s probably still worth the roster spot and has a reasonable chance of producing enough to justify the salary.
I’m a little surprised that’s all he got because he’s a very good, very athletic player and he was by far the best free-hand catch option available. Texas could have used him, although we can’t fault them for not spending this winter. The Yankees could have used him. The Padres, Astros and Angels all have good prospects 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 brings us to Sean Murphy, the beauty of the catchball now that Contreras has signed. The A’s have made it clear that they are open to trade offers, but in my very short time in the lobby at the winter meetings I’ve heard that 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 number giving him almost a full win for framing. He also has three more years of team control ahead of him, all at conciliation salaries that will very likely underpay him relative to his production.
I’d expect a return similar to the A’s for Matt Olson last offseason, although in this case there’s a little more urgency in catching the potential Shea Langeliers as ready for the majors as he will. I don’t want to cheer for the teardown in Oakland, but for a penny, for a pound — if you drop Chapman and Olson and Montas and Bassitt and others for prospects, there’s no point in keeping Murphy around. And, to be upfront, the Cubs have some serious depth of prospect to attempt a trade for him from.
Option B for teams looking for catch help could be in Toronto, although I’m not sure how motivated the Blue Jays are to postpone any of their three catch options right now. Gabriel Moreno is one of the brightest prospects at any position in the minors and he’s already a good defender who should always be one of the best gloves in the majors behind the plate. Alejandro Kirk caught more games last year than anyone but Murphy and ranked fifth in wRC+ and seventh in fWAR among all catchers in 2022, although his body won’t age well in the long term. And Danny Jansen is one of the best backup catchers in baseball, probably overwhelmed as a starter (especially with his injury history), but a hitter good enough to post the best wRC+ of any catcher who had 200+ PA last year .
The Jays could wait and see if Murphy comes off the board, but even now the market should be very strong for one of their guys – Kirk would be my pick for top trader despite his obvious popularity.
After all, Iván Herrera is the forgotten man in all of this. Reportedly the Cardinals’ future catcher and only 23 next season, he was ousted by Contreras last year after just 18 appearances in the big leagues. Herrera hit .268/.374/.396 in Triple A last year with an 18.7 percent strikeout rate, though his swing has flattened over the past year and he’s putting the ball on the floor too often, up from 17 homers in 98 games a year 2021 to just six of 65 games last year.
He’s making enough hard contact to be an ideal candidate for a team that’s successfully altering players’ swings to improve their starting angles, especially since his eye is strong and he’s an average defender at the moment. The Cardinals have other needs, like a higher floor outfielder for his production in 2023, and Herrera would be a valuable part of any trade they’re looking to strike.
(Photo: Matt Dirksen / Getty Images)