The Cardinals bid farewell to a pair of franchise icons at season’s end, as Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina officially closed the books on their playing career. For the first time in nearly two decades, St. Louis enters an offseason unsure of who’ll receive the bulk of the playing time behind the dish the following season. While the Cardinals have in-house options in Andrew Knizner and Ivan Herrera, president of baseball operations made clear in an appearance on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM this week that he’s actively exploring the market for catching upgrades.
“Clearly, with Yadi retiring, we know we need to upgrade at catching — especially when you think about the day-to-day demands of that role,” said Mozeliak. “That’s something that we’re going to look at, whether it’s trade or free agency.”
Asked about interest in top catcher Willson Contreras, Mozeliak declined to publicly comment on the free agent’s potential market, calling that a “dangerous game” and instead simply doubled down on interest in catching help: “We are in the catching market.”
Contreras, a longtime division rival, is this year’s top free-agent catcher, with former Red Sox and Astros backstop Christian Vazquez the clear No. 2 option. They’re not the only names available, of course, but they’re the two clear-cut starting catchers coming off strong 2022 campaigns. Rebound candidates include Omar Narvaez, Mike Zunino and Tucker Barnhart, all of whom had down 2022 seasons but were quite recently considered quality starting options behind the dish.
As Mozeliak alluded to, the trade market should produce a handful of alternatives. Oakland’s Sean Murphy will be available, though the asking price for three years of his services will be understandably steep. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have a trio of starting-caliber catchers on the roster in Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and top prospect Gabriel Moreno. Jansen, with two years of remaining club control to Kirk’s five and Moreno’s six, is generally seen as the likeliest of the group to move.
Whatever path the Cards take, an addition at catcher feels like a foregone conclusion. Knizner, 27, has served as the primary backup to Molina in recent seasons and managed only a .204/.292/.288 slash through 536 big league plate appearances. Optimists might suggest that he’d improve with more consistent playing time than he received Molina and his iron-man approach to catching, but Knizner has also drawn sub-par defensive marks along the way. The 22-year-old Herrera went 2-for-18 in his MLB debut this year but turned in a solid .268/.374/.396 line in Triple-A. Still, a team hoping to vie for a return to the postseason could use more certainty behind the dish, perhaps easing the well-regarded Herrera into a larger opportunity — as opposed to simply throwing him into a trial-by-fire run at the starting job.
Catching help isn’t all that’s on the menu this winter for Mozeliak, GM Mike Girsch and the rest of the front office, though. Mozeliak didn’t specify a position but did voice hope of adding a left-handed bat to help balance out his lineup. Given that most of the available catching options are right-handed bats — Narvaez and the switch-hitting Barnhart being the exceptions — it’s likely the Cards will have to make an additional move to achieve that goal.
“When you look at our offense, trying to find something from the left side to try to help bolster our day-to-day lineup is something we think we could benefit from,” said Mozeliak. “…”When you think about our club from the left side, we could just use a little extra pop. Some of our better hitters are right-handed, and so we’re just looking for more balance in our lineup.
The Cards aren’t totally devoid of left-handed bats but do skew more toward the right side of the dish — particularly when it comes to the team’s power hitters. Lars Nootbaar showed some impressive power from the left side of the dish and likely secured himself a spot in the 2023 outfield, but he’s the main source of left-handed pop the Cardinals have at the moment. Rookie of the Year finalist Brendan Donovan had an outstanding all-around season but hit just five homers and posted a lowly .097 ISO (slugging minus batting average). Switch-hitters Tommy Edman and Dylan Carlson were both vastly better hitters from the right side of the plate than the left. Twenty-two-year-old Nolan Gorman certainly has power from the left side of the plate but struggled increasingly as his rookie season wore on.
Last offseason’s signing of Corey Dickerson seemed intended to provide some help in this space, and while Dickerson rebounded from an awful start to finish with a roughly league-average batting line, he’s again a free agent and the Cardinals are surely hoping for more than average output from whoever is acquired to fill this role. The free-agent market isn’t exactly teeming with productive left-handed hitters who could be plugged into the St. Louis lineup, though veterans like Michael Brantley, Michael Conforto and old friend Matt Carpenter are all available. The former two will both be returning from shoulder surgery, whereas the latter enjoyed an otherworldly rebound with the Yankees before suffering a fractured foot that derailed his comeback effort.
As is so often heard from baseball operations leaders, Mozeliak also touched on the adage that a team can never have too much pitching, noting that “you’re always just one injury away from being in a tough spot.” While he didn’t characterize the Cardinals’ search for rotation depth as quite the same level of priority as a catcher and left-handed bat, Mozeliak suggested that the Cardinals will “keep the pulse” of the starting pitching market as the offseason progresses.
With Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Jordan Montgomery, Steven Matz, Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson, the Cardinals have at least six rotation options — Mozeliak also listed Drew VerHagen as a potential depth option there — but bolstering that group with a swingman or some veterans on minor league deals could well be on the eventual to-do list.