ST. LOUIS – It’s a reality that might not set in for a few months, but Yadier Molina has played his final game as a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.
In 19 seasons, from 2004 to 2022, Molina set a high standard for catchers that might not ever be surpassed in Cardinals history. While winning two World Series titles, Molina also broke all-time MLB records for most games caught with one team, most innings caught, most putouts and most starts with one specific battery mate.
“St. Louis is my home,” said Molina after his final MLB game last weekend. “I appreciate all the fans for all the support over many years. I’m blessed and happy the way my career went.”
An early postseason exit brings forth a hot-button topic earlier than some Cardinals fans might have anticipated… Who’s the next man up as the St. Louis Cardinals starting catcher?
The answer might resolve itself quickly into off season, or it might not become more clear until the 2023 season unfolds. The Cardinals have some internal and external options worth considering as an immediate heir, as Molina passes the torch and leaves the starting catcher role up for grabs.
1. Andrew Knizner
Knizner would seem to be the logical choice if the Cardinals don’t pursue help outside of the organization. The 2022 season, while not the flashiest, proved to be a big stepping stone for Knizner. The 27-year-old catcher caught 685.1 innings over 90 games this season, more frames in all but one of his seven years between the majors and minors.
His 78 games caught this season were by far the most of any Cardinals backup catcher campaign in the Molina era. Knizner’s presence considerably factored into a 3.79 ERA posted among Cardinals pitchers this year, eighth-best in baseball.
One potential obstacle to claiming the role, there’s room for improvement in Knizner’s hitting abilities. He’s only generated a .204 batting average and a .176 clip with RISP over 185 career games. If the Cardinals feel he can build on those numbers, Knizner might be the favorite for starts immediately.
2. Iván Herrera
If the Cardinals want to proceed with a youth movement, there aren’t many other internal options more readily available than Herrera. St. Louis called up Herrera on four different occasions last year, including for an eleven-day stretch in June while Yadier Molina was sidelined with injury.
The MLB sample size (11 games) is a bit small to judge Herrera offensively (.111 batting average) and defensively (59 innings caught). It is worth noting that the Cardinals carried Herrera on a taxi squad for the final regular series and the Wild Card Series in October in case the team needed to activate him from injury.
Herrera wrapped up a solid minor-league campaign with a .268 batting average, 6 home runs and 34 RBIs on offense. He’s caught 500 minor league innings three times since 2019, while throwing out 68 would-be base stealers in that same time frame. Translating a similar body of work to the MLB level could work wonders for Herrera’s chances at Cardinals catcher.
3. Willson Contreras
Could a longtime for join the other side of the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry? Contreras, a three-time All Star, just wrapped up his seventh season with the Cubs. He has slugged 20 home runs in the catcher’s spot four times, showing off rare pop out of the position. He has also averaged 18.5 base runners caught stealing per season and has logged at least 800 innings per season five times.
Unless the rebuilding Cubs can work out a new deal by early November, Contreras could try to find a new home rather quickly. Jose Quintana, Cardinals Game 1 Wild Card Series starter and former teammate, gave Contreras a “strong recommendation” to check in with St. Louis this off season, according to reports from Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat.
Contreras guided Cubs pitchers to a 2016 World Series title as a rookie and has more than 350 games worth of experience against NL Central opponents. At 30 years old, he offers a level of production and experience few others have around MLB right now. It’s an option that would likely cost the Cardinals tens of millions of dollars, but a strong opportunity to capitalize on the remaining prime years of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
4. Sean Murphy
Another rebuilding team, one that notoriously likes to make trades, could offer a coveted catcher this offseason. Sean Murphy proved reliable for a struggling Oakland Athletics offense this season, hitting .250 with 18 home runs and 66 RBIs. He also took fourth place in rookie of the year voting in 2020, won a Gold Glove in 2021 and has increased his innings count significantly in each of the last three seasons.
Oakland received several calls for Murphy’s services at the trade deadline last year, even though a deal wasn’t reached, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. It’s unclear if the Cardinals made a call, but St. Louis has made some sort of swap with Oakland in four of the last six years. The two franchises have a rapport, and it’s even led to big names being moved to St. Louis in the past like Mark McGwire and Matt Holliday.
Murphy might not compare to those two, but a catcher entering his age-28 season with gradual improvement each year on both sides of the ball could fill some big needs for St. Louis. Murphy, if dealt, would be under team control through 2025. It might be the least likely of these four options, though an affordable piece to consider if the Cardinals want to keep the window for a championship open.