The St. Louis Cardinals are all in training camp and preparing for the 2012 season! Those are sweet, sweet words for Cardinal fans all over the world. This is the time of year where every team has hope for the upcoming season, and the joy of baseball fandom is at its highest. As has been much discussed on this site, there are a lot of questions the Cardinals face as they approach a new season: new manager, new pitching coach, no Albert Pujols at first base, ace pitcher (Adam Wainwright) returning after a missed year following Tommy John surgery, Yadier Molina entering final year of his contract, Lance Berkman moving to first base, David Freese trying to stay healthy for a full season, Tyler Greene trying to win the second base job, Allen Craig trying to get back on the field, Shelby Miller and Matt Adams trying to crack the big league roster, Carlos Beltran first season with the Birds, Holliday moving into the 3 spot in the batting order…have I left anything out?
News broke out of Jupiter earlier this week that the Cardinals and Yadier Molina are very close on a 5-year extension for a reported $70-75 million. As of the writing of this article, the deal has yet to be completed or finalized. Molina’s contract situation begs the question of just who would replace Molina should he leave after the 2012 season? Would it come from within the organization or outside the organization? This article will look at the three catchers in the Cardinal system that would be next in-line should Molina leave, or perhaps more importantly (based on news of a deal being close for Molina), which guy could provide serviceable backup starts when Molina needs a rest.
Bryan Anderson is a 25-year old catcher that was drafted by the Cardinals in the 4th round of the 2005 amateur draft. Anderson made his big-league debut in 2010 and has seen only 32 at-bats. He has played time at the AAA level all the way back to 2008. His batting average in the minors is .281 and he has hit between 3-12 home runs each season. While not a home run hitter, he does swing a pretty good bat with gap power that can produce a lot of doubles. Scouts say Anderson is athletic with good bat-speed and plate discipline. He has a quick release from behind the plate but only average arm strength. His blocking and receiving also need some work before he is major-league ready. He certainly has the right coach to help him in manager Mike Matheny, but he appears to be a guy that could get squeezed out of an MLB opportunity. He’s not a good enough defender (yet) to play catcher but not enough of a power bat to become a DH.
Tony Cruz is also a 25-year old catcher. He was signed by the Cardinals in the 27th round of the 2007 amateur draft. Like Anderson, Cruz does not have many major league at-bats. Unlike Anderson, he was not drafted as a catcher. Cruz was drafted as a 3B, but was moved behind the plate because of his strong arm. His only time up in the big show came in 2011 when he accumulated 72 plate appearances in 38 games. Cruz stayed in the low minors longer than Anderson. He did not reach the AAA level until 2010.
Part of his development will be improving his slow release behind the plate (if only we could combine Anderson’s release and Cruz’s arm strength). Unfortunately, Cruz is a mediocre offensive weapon. His minors slash line is .264/.319/.414 and his AAA slash line is .232/.295/.389. He is a singles hitter that struggles to make consistent contact.
Koyie Hill was signed by the Cardinals to a minor-league contract during the 2012 off-season. Hill is 32 years old, was drafted by the Dodgers organization in the 4th round of the 2000 draft. He played sparingly at the big league level from 2003-2008. Then he played in 83, 77, and 46 games during the 2009-2011 seasons. Most of his playing time was received when Geovany Soto went down with injuries.
Hill was given playing time for his defensive abilities much more so than his offensive capabilities. Hill struggles to make contact, has a ground ball rate over 50%, and does not have a good eye at the plate (quite the combination). His best major league year season at the plate was 2009 when he hit .237 with with 2 HRs and 24 RBIs in 253 plate appearances. 2009 also marked the most plate appearances Hill has seen in a season to this point in his career.
A deeper look at these catcher’s skill sets and numbers makes it understandable why the Cardinals are willing to throw the years and dollars at Molina that is being reported. I did not even touch on all the intangibles a catcher brings to the team outside of the sheer numbers. The way Molina handles pitchers will ease the transition from Duncan to Lilliquist. The way he throws runners out and keeps runners from attempting to steal will keep many runs off the scoreboard. He is the guy you want behind the plate to groom Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, and others in the coming seasons. Those who would call a five-year contract to Molina foolish must not fully understand all the intangibles he brings to the team that truly make a difference in the standings at the end of the year.
Another exciting aspect to Molina is that 2011 was his most productive season at the plate. For whatever reason, a lot of catchers are late bloomers offensively, and Molina was no exception. In 2011, Molina batted .304 with 14 HRs and 65 RBIs. He has excellent discipline at the plate, drives the ball well to the opposite field, and makes contact over 90% of the time. His numbers are trending in such a way that I would not put a .300-20-80 season beyond him in any of the next three seasons.
There is one last factor to take into consideration. In this age of advanced metrics, we sometimes reduce a players worth to numbers on a page. It has been a long time since I have seen a Cardinal play the game of baseball with more passion than Yadier Molina. The Cardinals need him in the clubhouse if for no other reason than that. Passion is contagious.
If for some reason, the deal does not get done with the Cardinals and Molina, you have to believe the club would look outside the organization for a starting catcher. At 25, Anderson and Cruz have time to continue to develop, but nothing they have done to this point in their careers lead you to believe they would be the long-term answer.
This writer hopes Molina wears the Birds on the Bat for years to come. Let’s make it happen Mo!