The Cardinals wasted little time finding a replacement for franchise icon Yadier Molina following his retirement, inking longtime division rival Willson Contreras to a five-year contract in free agency. That solidifies the lion’s share of catching time in the immediate future, but there’ll at least be some competition with regard to who’ll back Contreras up in 2023 and perhaps beyond. While Andrew Knizner was Molina’s backup in recent seasons, MLB.com’s John Denton tweets that manager Oli Marmol “made it clear” that the backup job behind Contreras is a competition. Specifically, non-roster invitee Tres Barrera has made strong impressions early in camp.
Knizner, 28, has appeared in 160 games and tallied 478 plate appearances for the Cards over the past two seasons, but he’s managed just a .200/.294/.276 batting line in that time — about 33% worse than that of a league-average hitter (67 wRC+). Knizner has been good at controlling the running game in his career (29.8% caught-stealing rate), but he’s posted poor framing marks and been dinged with a minus-15 Defensive Runs Saved mark dating back to his 2019 MLB debut.
To his credit, Knizner was a well-regarded prospect and has a strong track record in the upper minors (.318/.368/.445 in Double-A; .283/.362/.453 in Triple-A). Scouting reports throughout his minor league tenure praised him as a bat-first option at catcher, but he’s yet to match those expectations. He’s also rarely had stable playing time in the big leagues, but with Contreras signed that’s unlikely to change.
As for the 28-year-old Barrera, he’s spent his entire career to date in the Nationals organization, receiving very limited looks in the Majors. He’s tallied just 51 games and 162 plate appearances, batting .231/.317/.315 with a pair of homers. In parts of six minor league seasons, Barrera has put together a .251/.332/.388 batting line, including a .228/.320/.356 slash in 402 Triple-A plate appearances.
Barrera has drawn average or better framing marks in his small MLB sample, but he’s had the opposite problem of Knizner, throwing out a woeful three of 34 attempted thieves on the basepaths (8.8%). However, he’s been far better in the minors over a much larger sample — 106-for-421, for a 25.2% rate — so there’s reason to expect him to improve on that currently unsightly number.
Not mentioned in Denton’s report but also in camp is top prospect Ivan Herrera. Once regarded as the heir-apparent to Molina, the 22-year-old Herrera made his big league debut in 2022 and went 2-for-18 with eight punchouts in 22 plate appearances. However, he also turned in a solid .268/.374/.396 batting line in Triple-A (111 wRC+) and has generally been an average or better bat at every minor league stop. He’s a career .276/.375/.415 hitter in parts of five minor league seasons and placed 75th among all prospects on FanGraphs’ rankings prior to the 2022 season.
With Contreras now installed behind the dish, Herrera’s main role with the Cardinals — at least in the short term — would appear to be a backup. He’s on the 40-man roster and has a minor league option remaining, so for now he can be sent to Triple-A to keep getting regular work in the event of an injury to Contreras. Longer term, there’s no longer a clear starting spot on the roster for Herrera. Having an overqualified backup isn’t a bad thing, though, and Contreras has enough bat to play some designated hitter as a means of keeping him fresh, which could theoretically open some additional playing time. There’s also the obvious likelihood that other clubs will come calling on Herrera’s availability, but to this point there’s been little indication the Cardinals have seriously entertained any overtures.