The Cardinals are approaching the end of what will be a nine-year relationship with catcher Yadier Molina barring an extension beyond 2012. Over that 9 year period, Molina will have earned something in the neighborhood of $25M according to Cot’s Contracts. It’s almost certain that Molina would have been a starting catcher on the merits of his defense alone but he has also proven a capable hitter at the plate.
From 2004-2011, Yadier Molina ranks 8th in Fangraphs’ WAR among catchers. This understates his talent though as defensive rankings for catchers are rudimentary. While other catchers are getting nearly full credit for their talent since they are offense first players (e.g. Jorge Posada), Yadier Molina doesn’t even crack the top 30 in wOBA over that time period. There’s a compelling rationale that Molina is a top 5 catcher during his MLB tenure.
The Cardinals have become accustomed in recent years to consistency in their backstop. Prior to Molina, now manager Mike Matheny was the primary catcher from 2000-2004. Matheny personified the Cardinals desire for a defensive catcher in spite of offensive shortcomings. Loved by his pitchers, Matheny was nothing short of anemic at the plate. Posting a .277 wOBA, about .055 points worse than league average or 3 wins below league average on offense, Matheny was still behind the plate for no less than 110 games each year.
It will have been 12 years since the Cardinals had their last “one year” catcher (Eli Marrero in a share time with Alberto Castillo) if Yadier Molina leaves as a free agent. A quick glance at the Future Redbirds Top 20 list shows exactly zero catchers make the rankings. Can the club fill this need from within or will they need to dip into the free agent market themselves?
The obvious replacement candidates internally are Bryan Anderson and Tony Cruz. The latter has the better defensive reputation and the former is better liked by most projection systems in terms of his offense. Given that the Cardinals have yet to sign a backup catcher free agent, both Anderson and Cruz will audition for the role in Spring Training. Whoever claims the role, and their subsequent performance during the season, could make inroads on the position for the following season. Both are projected for a better wOBA than Mike Matheny and much better wOBAs relative to the offensive environment of the league. Whether either can step into a full time role remains to be seen.
The farm system is thin, however, beyond the immediate depth. Steve Hill, a sometimes catcher, will be coming back from a major knee injury. Nick Derba has struggled at the plate badly despite ascending to Memphis. Travis Tartamella has faced similar travails on his way up to Springfield. Dominican product Luis de la Cruz has failed to distinguish himself from other low level catchers like Jonathan Keener or Geoffrey Klein.
The three most promising candidates for catcher are, in no particular order, Audry Perez, Robert Stock and Cody Stanley. Perez received some attention after landing in Keith Law’s top 10 Cardinal prospect lists. He’s shown good power during his professional career but has struggled badly against advanced breaking pitches. Perez will be 23 next season and Springfield seems a likely destination.
Robert Stock is the catcher that many are curious to see as a pitcher. Stock hit well at Johnson City in an abbreviated 2009 performance after he was drafted. The following year his performance would crater badly with Quad Cities and the questions about a Jason Motte-like conversion began again. Staying behind the plate in 2011, Stock struggled at the start of the season but showed some signs of life after an early promotion to Palm Beach where he posted a .339 OBP. Some of the luster with Stock is certainly his draft status (second round pick) but, fundamentally, he’s not as flawed as some critics would say.
The last player would be Cody Stanley who spent 2011 in the Quad Cities and accumulated a .264/.317/.425, which was actually a bit better than league average offense in the MWL. Stanley was noted for his athleticism coming into the draft, which I echoed later. The lack of obvious detriments — he can hit a little, defend home plate, handle a pitching staff, and is no slouch on the bases — is faint praise but also something that can’t be said about many other catchers in the Cardinals farm system.
If that reads like an unenthusiastic endorsement of the Cardinals backstops, it is. There’s no obvious standout or a high upside prospect in the low levels. 2013 is still a year off but the Cardinals may want to keep an eye on the free agent market if they are unable or unwilling to retain Yadier Molina’s services for the future.