Positional scarcity is a concept that’s easy to understand but hard to keep in mind. Conceptually, there are fewer players capable of playing certain positions (catcher, shortstop) than other positions (1B, corner outfield). Part of the issue is the defensive spectrum and another part is the physical demands of the position. Not many players can spend 100+ games behind the plate squatting for 900 innings.*
The baseball population is skewed toward replacement level on a talent curve. There’s far more replacement level players than average players and far more average players than superstars. We assign value to the superstars because of scarcity (although baseball still does so in a linear fashion**) of talent. If you further diminish the pool of players (looking for a catcher), it’s like placing a seconder finer granularity filter beneath the first — less is going to pass through the second filter.
Bryan Anderson has had some disappointing seasons to date. It’s not that they’ve been bad, merely underwhelming. It’s conceivable, perhaps even likely, that he still has power potential to translate into HRs; even without any further growth, it’s important to note that he’s already better than about a third of the league’s regular catchers. A straight translation (without regard to aging curves) of his Memphis performance this year, would give him an EqA of .249 (league average is .260). Among catchers with 300 PAs or more, of which there are 29, he would be better than 10 of those catchers and within 10 pts of another 8.
There’s a tendency to evaluate players based on what they can’t do (he can’t field, he can’t hit for power, he can’t put the ball in play, etc.) rather than what they can do; in this case, Anderson can’t hit for power but he can play a position at which only a small group of people can. He can hit for average and draw walks. The absence of one offensive trait hardly negates the value of others. Even a peak translation (applying aging curves) has Anderson hitting just 4 HRs but it also has him at an EqA of .275, which is considerable for a catcher.
The question of whether the Cardinals should keep Anderson is a more complex one. It’s apparent that he has the ability to become an above average offensive catcher relative to league average — not just “catcher” average. Obviously, the Cardinals have a catcher signed long term in Yadier Molina. The question boils down to one of three solutions: A) Anderson never develops at the major league level, B) trade Anderson or C) platoon Anderson with Yadier. While I don’t believe that choice A is likely, it’s certainly a possibility. The uncertainty still exists that he could turn into a lesser player than the projections above imply. There’s risk to keeping him. The only real way to diminish that risk is to eliminate it completely.
Trading Anderson this offseason could be viewed as a sell-high move. The question would be how much you could expect to get back for him. When Atlanta acquired Mark Texeira, they made young catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia the centerpiece of that deal. There were a lot of side dishes with that entree (SS Elvis Andrus, RHP Neftali Feliz, LHP Matt Harrison, LHP Beau Jones) but acquiring a catcher with substantial offensive potential was a sweet deal for the rebuilding Rangers. Anderson isn’t the caliber of prospect that Salty was and the Cardinals would be hard pressed to come up with a comparable package. That said they don’t need to shoot for a player like Texeira in a trade. There are a myriad of teams that lack a solid MLB caliber catcher or long term solution in the form of a prospect. The hot name to throw out right now would be the Padres whom have little in the way of catching.
The third option is one that the current manager would likely be disinclined to agree to. Putting a young player in a bench/platoon role is something that TLR has explicitly spoken against in the past and that’s not to say he isn’t right. Yadier Molina plays a fair amount of games for a catcher but still leaves 40-50 games on the table for his backup due to injury or rest. Assuming that Molina would catch against left handed starters (.859 vs. LHP/.690 vs. RHP) and Anderson would start against right handers, do the benefits outweigh the costs.
|Keeps Yadi fresh||Defensive downgrade|
|Potentially more offense versus RHP||No trade to upgrade other area of team|
|Saves ~500K for backup catcher|
|More offense than FA backup catcher|
I’m not sure either side comes out substantially ahead in a comparison like this. Anderson might be a one-win upgrade over whatever free agent backup the Cardinals snare but is that marginal gain enough to justify not moving him? If Yadier were to be hurt for a more substantial portion of time, I’d prefer to have an MLB ready catcher to take over the responsibilities but you can’t hoard your prospects against every possible contingency. That would be a poor use of resources.
It leaves us at something of an impasse. Anderson is better than a few catchers currently in the majors and could work his way into the upper half given a few years. He could also flame out. We have a young catcher signed long term and other needs on the team. If I were the GM, I’d hole onto him in AAA for one more year as insurance against a Molina injury and with the hopes that he could raise his stock a little bit more. Then I’d wish him the best on another team via trade. He doesn’t have to be on the 40-man roster yet so there’s no imperative to protect him yet and it’s certainly justifiable to stash him in AAA for another season. Either way, Mozeliak has a defensible set of rationalizations for any move he makes with Anderson provided he gets some kind of value back in return.
Anderson’s case is different compared to that of fellow draftee Colby Rasmus. While Rasmus became the opening line for the Jeff Luhnow draft management, Anderson has been something more of a footnote. The differences in depth also impact their value to the club as well. While the Cardinals have a high number of outfielders, none of them are as young as Yadier Molina who will enter next season at age 26. The age gap between Rasmus and outfielders versus Anderson and Molina would tend to favor Rasmus in terms of getting younger as a team.*** It’s a decision that Mozeliak will be forced to confront as he attempts to make trades this offseason. There may not be any right decision with Anderson and, fortunately, there are very few wrong decisions as well. ****
*I was the catcher in my softball league last year. The next day it often hurt to stand. I would not like to do this for 100 days a year. A million dollar salary would soften the blow though.
**I would prefer an exponential valuation for superstar talent.
***I’m aware younger != better in all cases.
****Trading Anderson for, say, Juan Pierre would constitute a wrong decision though. Nothing is completely idiot-proof but I’m highly skeptical that Mozeliak would do anything that stupid.