The Cardinals are in the market for a catcher. Hopefully they’ll be smart about this and view the opening as an opportunity to upgrade their offense. Defense must be a consideration, which doesn’t really need to be stated. But in this case the defensive requirement has been overstated, with too much attention being paid to the standard established by Yadier Molina.
Here’s a thought: NO ONE is Yadier Molina, OK? He’s retired. So let’s knock it off. It’s absolutely ludicrous – not to mention unfair – to take every potential catching candidate and compare him to Yadi, a future Hall of Famer … as in Cooperstown. We have to analyze any potential new successor based on his own strengths and weaknesses – and how that fits with the Cardinals.
“Understand that like Yadi was, first of all a high-baseball-IQ defensive savant,” Cards president of baseball ops John Mozeliak said at the GM Meetings in Las Vegas. “You have to understand that’s not going to be the easiest thing to replace. Having said that, though, what we’re trying to look at is ‘how do we replace him and is there some opportunity for a little more offence in that slot?’ It’s not a position we’ve had to go shop at for 21 years. You accept that defence is going to go probably a step backwards (but) there could be some potential for some offensive upside.”
Let’s have a look.
I didn’t come here today to write (again) about Willson Contreras, who likely is headed to free agency after a successful stint with the Cubs that began in 2016, when the franchise won the World Series for the first time since 1908. Sean Murphy (Oakland) is arguably the most appealing trade candidate out there, and I’ll do a deeper dive on him next week.
For now I’d like to focus on two intriguing trade-import possibilities who happen to be teammates in Toronto: Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen. Not that the Blue Jays would trade both, and they may not make a trade at all, but with the young and talented Gabriel Moreno (age 22) on the rise, there’s a catching surplus. And the Toronto could move Kirk or Jansen for a left-swinging outfielder.
Here’s an overview from Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet Canada:
“Thanks to Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno, Blue Jays catchers generated an MLB-best 7.3 WAR in 2022. They combined to lead MLB in batting average (.273) and on-base percentage (.351) while hitting 34 home runs – remarkable production when you consider league average at the position was a .226 average and .295 on-base percentage.
“Clearly, the Blue Jays could simply run it back in 2023. While it’s not the most efficient way to use those three players, catcher is a high-attrition position and Moreno worked out in the infield and outfield late this past season to build his versatility. There are real scenarios where all three contribute to the Blue Jays in 2023 and beyond.
“At the same time, trades are clearly possible, too. Rebuilding teams might covet Moreno’s upside and team control. Win-now teams might target Jansen, now two years away from free agency, for his power bat and catching acumen. And who wouldn’t want Kirk, who walks more than he strikes out while offering impressive power?
“While the Blue Jays aren’t about to force a trade, it’s a possibility the club is openly exploring. Some at the GM Meetings see real scenarios where no team meets the Blue Jays’ price for any of the three while others believe an off-season deal is likely.”
Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said this: “We’re in a position where we do not have to do that to make our team better. Their potential versatility – more on the Moreno side than with the other two – is a positive for us.”
Later in his story, Nicholson-Smith cited characterized the Cardinals as “maybe the best fit of all,” adding “if the oddsmakers here in Vegas were looking to set odds, they’d probably start with St. Louis.”
As for a potential return, the writer mentioned Cardinals outfielders Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbaar – “both of whom would likely have real appeal to the Blue Jays.” (He wasn’t implying that the Blue Jays would demand both outfielders … just one … and Nootbaar may be the preference.
“Could a structure around Nootbar and Kirk work for both teams? Presumably, Jansen would have some appeal to St. Louis, too,” Nicholson-Smith concluded.
I’ll play along by taking a look at each Toronto catcher.
Status: Age 24. Right-handed hitter. His physique is somewhat unusual: FanGraphs lists him at 5 foot 8 and 265 pounds. Can’t become a free agent until the 2027 season. This past season he was chosen for the American League All-Star team and just won the Silver Slugger award as the best-hitting catcher in the AL. Kirk had 3.8 Wins Above Replacement (per FanGraphs) which ranked fourth-best in the majors among qualifying catchers. Made his MLB debut in 2020 and has played in 208 games for Toronto. MLB career batting line: .278 average, .362 OBP, .426 slug, .788 OPS, 121 OPS+ (21% above league average.)
Offense: In 541 plate appearances this past season, Kirk batted .285 with a .372 onbase percentage and .415 slugging percentage. He flew 14 homers, hitting one every 33.5 at-bats, and drove in 63 runs. Kirk was 32 percent above league average offensively, based on park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+). That was tied for fourth-best among Blue Jays. Kirk has exceptional plate discipline. In 2022 Kirk had more walks (63) than strikeouts (58.) His walk rate (11.2%) was slightly higher than his strikeout rate (11%). He had one of the lowest swing-miss rates (5.8%) in the majors and one of the highest contact rate on strikes (91%) in the bigs. He did a very good job of hitting with runners in scoring position this past season, batting .278 with a .869 OPS. He was 49 percent above league average offensively with RISP.
Five Most similar hitters to Kirk according to Statcast: Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana,, Max Kepler, Alex Verdugo and Josh Bell, Yandy Diaz.
Defense: Outstanding. Kirk caught a career-high 654 innings in 2022, and his 9 defensive runs saved were tied with Molina for 6th in the majors. Baseball Prospectus ranked him 3rd among MLB catchers with 12 Fielding Runs Above Average. And Kirk was 5th in the majors in pitch-framing, 6th in pitch blocking and 5th in throwing. His caught-stealing rate was slightly above league average at 27 percent; with his slightly above pop time and strong arm, Kirk’s throw-out rate was more of reflection on Toronto’s pitchers.
Injuries: Kirk appeared in only 60 games in 2021 because of a right flexor strain that sidelined him from May 2 through July 22.
Questions: (1) In the first three months of the 2022 regular season Kirk batted .319 with a .411 OBP and .514 slug for a .925 OPS. That translated to 66 percent above league average offensively in wRC+. But over the final three months, Kirk hit .258 with a .339 OBP and a low .335 slug for a .674 OPS. Over that time Kirk was three percent below league average offensively in wRC+. The dropoff was dramatic, especially in the power department. What happened? Did he wear down? For whatever it’s worth, Kirk had only 80 plate appearances at DH over the first three months but that number increased to 132 PA over the final three months. (2) What about Busch Stadium as a home ballpark? Potentially a problem. According to Statcast, only 16 of Kirk’s 23 career homers would have been a home run at Busch.
Status: 27 years old. Right-handed hitter. Can become a free agent in 2025. Stands 6 foot 2 and weighs 225 pounds. Made his MLB debut in 2018 and has played in 323 games for the Blue Jays. Hasn’t been an American All-Star or won any awards. MLB career batting line: .223 average, .307 OBP, .423 slug, .731 OPS, 98 OPS+, or two percent below league average.
Offense: Jansen has really bloomed – or boomed – offensively over the last two seasons. If we combine his performance over 2021-2022, here’s what we see: a .496 slugging percentage, .817 OPS, and a 141 OPS+ which means he’s been 41 percent above league offensively over that time. Over the past two seasons Jansen has struck for a homer every 15.3 at-bats, which is fantastic. And he’s done all of this while striking out in only 19.4 percent of his plate appearances during the last two seasons. In 2022 Jansen slugged .516 and bashed 15 homers in 215 at-bats – an average of one homer every 14.3 ABs. Jansen’s .516 slug in ‘22 led all MLB catchers that had at least 240 plate appearances. And his 140 wRC+ (park and league adjusted runs created led all Blue Jays and was tops among MLB catchers with a minimum 240 PA. Like Alejandro Kirk, Jansen has put up good numbers against RHP.
Five most most similar hitters to Kirk according to Statcast: Pete Alonso, Joc Pederson, Christian Walker, Anthony Santander, Rowdy Tellez.
Defense: Below-average overall with a minus 0.5 Fielding Runs Above Average in 2022. That ranked tied for 27th among MLB catchers that were behind the plate for at least 800 pitches. (A reminder that Kirk was +11 in Fielding Runs Above Average, 3rd in MLB.) Jansen was ranked 28th in pitch-framing, 8th in blocking, 10th in throwing, and matched the MLB average with a caught-stealing rate of 26 percent.
Injuries: In 2021 Jansen missed 67 total days on two different stays on the IL with a strained hamstring. In 2022, he missed 34 days with a strained oblique, and another 36 days with a finger injury. So that’s a total of 137 days missed to injury over the last two seasons combined.
Questions: (1) Will injuries be an issue? (2) Jansen can become a free agent in 2025, which means he’d be under contract control for two more seasons. Is that a plus or a minus? Kirk is under contract control over the next four seasons, which theoretically would provide continuity at the position through 2026. But what if the Cardinals are genuine in their stated desire to develop and install prospect Ivan Herrera as their starting catcher? Herrera isn’t ready. But if Herrera is as good as the Cardinals believe, having Jansen in place for the next two seasons would coincide nicely with Herrera’s growth into a more prominent goal. And because the team that acquires Kirk would have four years of contract control with him, it seems that the cost of acquiring Kirk would be more expensive than the cost of dealing for Jansen. (3) What about Busch Stadium? Not a problem for Jansen. Via Statcast, all 50 of his career homers would have been home runs at Busch.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful weekend.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.