Ranking the candidates in the Cardinals’ pursuit of a new catcher

Chicago Cubs' Willson Contreras watches his triple against the St. Louis Cardinals during the...
Chicago Cubs' Willson Contreras watches his triple against the St. Louis Cardinals during the third inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, in St. Louis.(AP Photo / Scott Kane)
Published: Dec. 6, 2022 at 8:30 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - As the Cardinals navigate the Winter Meetings this week in San Diego, the team has been consistently linked to one specific area of need more than any other.

St. Louis is in the market for a catcher.

With Yadier Molina retiring and the 2022 efforts by Andrew Knizner and prospect Ivan Herrera providing little confidence in their respective abilities to handle a leading-man workload behind the plate next season, the Cardinals are said to be targeting an ‘everyday’ solution at the catcher position.

While that term likely means something different than it did when the Cardinals were enjoying 120+ starts at catcher per season from Molina in nine out of 10 years during Yadi’s prime from 2009-2018, St. Louis is looking for its version of the new normal at backstop.

Based on the rumors and reports surrounding the Cardinals’ pursuit of a catcher, let’s dive into our rankings of some of the oft-discussed candidates.

5. Willson Contreras

Though this list isn’t necessarily comprehensive in terms of the possible answers to the Cardinals’ quandary at catcher this winter, the longtime Chicago Cubs standout is at the bottom of mine in terms of the dollars and sense of how his signing would influence the remainder of the St. Louis offseason. Willson Contreras has proven himself for years as one of the most productive offensive catchers in the game, but I’m concerned the signing⁠—which MLB Trade Rumors projects will be around four years and $84 million⁠—would be short-sighted by the Cardinals.

As a catcher, Contreras’ output offensively would be an undeniable upgrade for St. Louis. He has an .808 OPS for his career and was better than that this past season, posting an .815 OPS with 22 home runs⁠—his fourth 20+ HR campaign in the last five non-COVID-shortened seasons. Though his veteran presence and competitive fire need to be considered as resounding positives of a potential deal, his defensive prospects over the next few years are murkier. At 30 years old, Conteras caught just 72 games for the Cubs this year while serving as the designated hitter for another 39 contests.

Given that Contreras is already seeing a diminished workload behind the plate at age 30, how reasonable would it be for the Cardinals to expect 100+ games from Contreras at catcher in Year Three, Year Four or Year Five of a would-be contract? And if Contreras is more of a half-time catcher than an everyday catcher over the life of the deal, the value proposition on his prospective signing drastically declines.

An .808 OPS from a catcher is fantastic; from a designated hitter, it’s not nearly as impactful, calling to question whether the Cardinals would regret paying Contreras 20-plus million dollars annually. The opportunity cost of an expensive contract for Contreras could mean the Cardinals’ attention to various other markets⁠—shortstop and starting pitching⁠—falling to the back-burner.

But as multiple reports have cited that Cardinals representatives have met with Contreras’ camp in recent days, it appears as though the team’s interest in Contreras is higher than mine. If the Cardinals can’t find a suitable trade for a catcher, a splash for Contreras may very well be their big move of the winter.

4. Christian Vazquez

The free-agent catcher that I think makes more sense for the Cardinals than Contreras is Christian Vazquez. Not because I believe that the longtime Red Sox catcher who finished 2022 in Houston is a better player than Contreras, but because his contract projection⁠—three years and $27 million is the prediction at MLB Trade Rumors⁠—would leave the Cardinals more financial ammunition to explore various other ways to improve the roster beyond the catcher spot.

The 32-year-old Vazquez fits the type of defensive profile at catcher to which the Cardinals have grown accustomed with Yadier Molina behind the dish. Vazquez boasts +55 Defensive Runs Saved for his career. That includes a +11 DRS in 2022, which was tied for fourth-best in MLB at the catcher position last season.

He’s not Contreras at the plate, but he doesn’t have to be in order to represent an improvement from the paltry .552 OPS the Cardinals got from the catcher position last year (28th in MLB). Between Boston and Houston, Vazquez compiled a .714 OPS, slightly above the .695 mark he’s carried in his big-league career.

If the Cardinals still want to cling to hope for the eventual progression of Ivan Herrera behind the plate, spending a boatload on Contreras⁠—a bat-first catcher who could wind up as an underperforming DH in a few years⁠—isn’t the most strategic way to approach the offseason. If they come up empty in the trade market, a shorter contract for the reliable Vazquez would fit the billing.

3. Danny Jansen

Beyond the free-agent options, the Cardinals could turn to the trade market to fill the void at catcher. This should be the team’s preferred route to addressing the position as a purposeful trade could simultaneously fill a key need while serving to alleviate redundancies elsewhere on the roster.

This is where the Toronto Blue Jays get involved in our list. There have been persistent rumors in recent weeks that the Blue Jays might be willing to trade a catcher this winter due to its impressive stockpile at the position. Of Toronto’s three quality catching options, Danny Jansen, 27, is the eldest with the fewest years of control remaining. In theory, that combination makes him the name the Jays would be most willing to move⁠—but that’s just informed speculation.

Jansen had a career year across the board at the plate in 2022, posting a slash line of .260/.339/.516 for a career-best OPS of .855 with 15 homers. The knock on Jansen is that he saw just 63 games behind the plate last season⁠—but it’s not his fault his team had two other capable catchers. Jansen started 94 games at catcher in 2019 and could conceivably handle a similar workload with St. Louis this coming year.

With two years of team control attached to his services, trading pieces with more substantial team control attached like Nolan Gorman or Lars Nootbaar to acquire Jansen would likely be considered an overpay by Cardinals’ brass. Tyler O’Neill would seem to make sense as a trade chip from the St. Louis side, but as the Blue Jays recently traded away right-handed hitting outfielder Teascar Hernandez, it’s not necessarily the case that O’Neill would be of interest to Toronto.

2. Alejandro Kirk

Aside from touted catching prospect Gabriel Moreno, who made his arrival in Toronto this past season, Alejandro Kirk is the catcher that the Blue Jays should probably protect the most fiercely in trade discussions. Kirk is just 24 years old and possesses a legitimate bat.

In 2022, he posted a 126 OPS+ with 14 home runs and a .285 batting average in over 500 plate appearances for the Blue Jays. He also led Toronto in innings caught at 654.0 and graded out positively as a defender.

Because he does not reach free agency until 2027, Kirk will likely stay put this offseason. But seeing as his career .786 OPS and above-average defense at catcher would represent a significant way to stabilize the position in St. Louis for years to come, his name bears mention near the top of this list should the Blue Jays should open themselves up to offers.

1. Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy would be the prize of the winter at the catching position for the Cardinals. The 28-year-old Murphy has an OPS+ of 114 for his career, meaning he’s been a handily above-average offensive contributor at the catcher position. Last season with Oakland, he compiled a .759 OPS with 18 home runs in 612 plate appearances. A Gold Glover in 2021, Murphy caught more than 1000 innings during the 2022 season, making him an attractive option from a workload and durability perspective.

The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported Tuesday that the Athletics are looking for Major League talent rather than prospects heading back their way in a potential Murphy deal. That should benefit the Cardinals in their ability to match up with Oakland on a deal, considering St. Louis has more starting pitchers than spots in their rotation (even if you’re not convinced about the quality of the options, the sheer volume of them is clogging the roster). And if the Cardinals need to deal from their middle-infield depth to land the catcher of their choice, the team could then pivot to the free-agent shortstop market to compensate.

Whether John Mozeliak is willing to meet the Athletics’ asking price remains to be seen, but a trade for Murphy followed by the signing of an impact bat at shortstop could help the Cardinals maximize their resources as they look to reinforce the lineup following the retirements of Molina and Albert Pujols.