Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak wants to leave the Baseball Winter Meetings in San Diego with a new catcher to succeed the retired Yadier Molina.
Mo and crew can find a catcher. That isn’t the issue. Many are out there via trade or free-agent signing. But will the Cardinals get their catcher at Neiman Marcus, or will they settle for Target?
Pardon my schlocky analogy. And for the record, I believe Target is a fine, respectable store — and I have the receipts to show that we shop there …
Continuing with my schlocky analogy, the Cardinals have the money to shop wherever they want to shop. They can head straight to the most expensive aisle. If they want the best merchandise, and are determined to pursue top quality, they certainly can afford the cost.
That’s true if the Redbirds want to trade for Oakland’s Sean Murphy or sign free-agent Willson Contreras. While I think Murphy is the more complete catcher for his plus defense and plus offense, I like Contreras (a lot) and don’t buy into the exaggerated claims over his defensive flaws. He would be more of a middle-lineup hitter than Murphy.
The Cards and A’s have been having a palaver about Murphy, a hopeful sign, and they have enough higher-end prospects to satisfy Oakland’s ask.
Or if the Cardinals choose to hoard prospects, they certainly have enough revenue to give Contreras a generous contract if that’s their decision and he’s still out there.
The market isn’t limited to Murphy or Contreras.
Toronto has a catching surplus and seems willing to trade Danny Jansen or Alejandro Kirk. Christian Vazquez is an affordable free agent who has a reputation for above-average defense and shrewd pitch-calling.
There are some platoon-type options available, but I don’t want to get into all of that and stray from my point: if Mozeliak wants to improve his team – really improve his team – then he must act on it instead of doing the overly cautious Cardinal thing.
Even if they entice Oakland to part with Murphy – again, that would be my preference – the Cardinals wouldn’t have enough bang on offense. They wouldn’t have the so-called “third” bat to go with Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. But that’s a separate issue. A chance to secure Murphy’s total-package talent overrides other roster concerns. Just because Murphy isn’t the ideal “third bat” it doesn’t mean that you walk away from trade talks to get him … especially if you don’t want to pay up for Contreras.
For now, it’s one thing at a time … and it’s all about emerging from the winter with the top available catcher. So that’s what I’m focusing on. Murphy for now, and I’ll pivot to Contreras if necessary.
We don’t know what Oakland’s demands are, so it’s difficult for me to make declarations in the dark.
But if the Cardinals aren’t going to give up a share of coveted prospects now to commit to a serious upgrade … then when? If they aren’t going to spend money now to improve their team by a meaningful measure … then when? Either way, the Cardinals have what’s necessary to be a major player in the annual offseason talent expedition. But we’ve been through this before. Perhaps they’ll actually come through this time.
Last season, according to Cots Contracts, St. Louis ranked 10th in the majors with a 26-man payroll and were 13th in the 40-man competitive balance tax payroll. The Cards can increase the 2023 payroll by a significant amount without crossing over the payroll-tax threshold hell. There are no limitations – except for the self-imposed spending “cap” applied by Cardinals management.
Likewise, the Cardinals have done an effective job of replenishing their farm system and have the attractive prospects to take to the market to fill obvious needs. They can’t play or pitch all of these kids, so it makes obvious sense to move multiple prospects in the attempt to get a lot stronger at an important position.
It’s not as if the Cardinals have been irresponsible in giving good prospects away over the previous four offseasons. And we sure as heck know they haven’t thrown a bunch of free-agent money around. And keep in mind that the Cardinals have even more dough to play with. The financial conditions are excellent, as specified by Ken Rosenthal in a recent column at The Athletic:
In the exact words of Rosenthal:
— It’s the first full offseason of a new collective-bargaining agreement. Owners historically react to the assurance of labor peace over a sustained period by spending more freely.
— The sport’s revenues last season approached $11 billion, according to commissioner Rob Manfred. That number potentially will exceed the record of $10.7 billion set in 2019, the last full season played without COVID-19 restrictions.
— The league in November sold the remaining 15 percent of BAMTech to Disney for $900 million. While that amount technically breaks down to $30 million per team, it’s possible the league held back a portion of the money for its Central Fund.
— The higher luxury-tax thresholds in the new CBA created more flexibility for the game’s biggest spenders. The lowest threshold increased from $210 million in 2021 to $230 million in 2022 and then $233 in 2023. The impact only is now starting to show. Last offseason started under the old CBA and ended after a 99-day lockout with an abbreviated conclusion to free agency.
— The new, expanded postseason format — and the surprise appearances of the Padres and Phillies in the National League Championship Series — is perhaps creating greater hope for clubs that previously were also-rans, and providing more incentive to spend.
So far the Cardinals have stayed away from the exorbitant bidding in the free-agent shortstop extravaganza. Last offseason, the Cards sat on the side, disengaged, as teams signed Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Javier Baez, Trevor Story and Marcus Semien to a combined $815 million in contracts. And with some of those names, it was smart to sit out. But that isn’t the point. No matter how the Cardinals felt about those individual shortstops, they weren’t willing to go big, and spend big.
This offseason, free-agent shortstop Trea Turner just made a huge splash by agreeing to an 11-year, $300 million deal with the Phillies. So if you’re keeping score at home or the office, MLB teams have now invested $1.15 billion in free-agent shortstops over the last two offseasons – and that’s before Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson find a match and cut lavish free-agent deals.
(I like Tommy Edman, but he has extra value in his ability to play multiple positions. If the Cardinals wanted to upgrade, Edman doesn’t have to be the full-time shortstop. And I realize that the Cardinals have a promising prospect, Masyn Winn, on a trajectory to be their shortstop … but he has the speed, athleticism and arm to play three infield spots and all three outfield positions.)
To this point Cardinals haven’t gotten involved in free-agent auctions for legit No. 1 starting pitchers – a clear area of need for a team that mostly has No. 3 starter types with inadequate strikeout wallop. Last offseason other teams went for Max Scherzer, Carlos Rodon, Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray. This offseason, Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander are off the free-agent board. Combined cost of the contracts cited here: $648 million, and Rodon will get paid in a big way after his outstanding 2022 season with the Giants.
We can debate the wisdom of all that spending, and snicker over deals that will go bad in some instances. (Can deGrom possibly stay healthy?) But even if a percentage of these shortstop and starting pitcher deals go sour, the team owners won’t lose any money. They’ll be making more money. Because revenues are rising.
I believe there will come a time when we look back to the last two offseasons and wonder why the Cardinals remained in the background, disinterested, in two consecutive free-agent markets that featured an appealing pool of available prime talent at shortstop and front-end starting pitchers.
The Cardinals should feel the pressure to make a big move. And they should act on that pressure — but not as a surrender. They should act on it because it makes sense. They should act on it because teams that already are superior to the Cardinals in the National League are doubling down to improve. How hungry are the Cardinals ownership-management to close the gap with the more elite, bloodthirsty competitors in the NL?
As Mozeliak told reporters in San Diego on Monday night: “Our model will be tested.”
Translation: the model of building a team capable of winning a division title in the soft NL Central instead isn’t as smart as building a team that’s significantly more viable as a World Series contender.
The time is right. The Cardinals have to make themselves stronger for a lively postseason run in 2023. A postseason run that wouldn’t be a shocker. A postseason run with an enhanced roster that has a more likely shot to go deep into October.
The Cardinals won 93 games last season, their most since 2015. But look closer, and you’ll see that the Redbirds were a pedestrian 55-50 in games that didn’t involve NL Central bottom feeders Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Chicago.
And the Cardinals have won only one postseason round since defeating the Dodgers in the 2014 NLDS. Since then the Cardinals have lost 12 of 18 postseason games including nine of their last 10.
Shouldn’t that motivate ownership-management to be more ambitious? Shouldn’t they take the ages of Paul Goldschmidt (35) and Nolan Arenado (32 next season) into account?
Management hasn’t taken full advantage of the Arenado-Goldschmidt window. And except for a major increase in tickets sold, they didn’t take full advantage of the Yadier Molina & Albert Pujols Farewell Season in 2022. And now we’re getting set for Adam Wainwright’s Bye-Bye Tour, and wondering if it will be more of the same: the Cardinals being happy to peddle the come-see-Waino!!! tickets and merch … and being content to have a good team instead of striving to have a great team.
But let’s examine this … do the Cardinals really feel any pressure? As of now, I’d say no. Yes, even though Mozeliak made some sort of roster-enhancement promise to Arenado in the discussions concerning ‘Nado’s opt-out clause. And even though this ballclub should be embarrassed by a series of stark postseason failures.
So where is this pressure coming from? Arenado is staying. The fans will fill Busch Stadium again in 2023. The local media doesn’t raise hell. The NL Central is an easy ride to the playoffs, giving management another chance to brag about making the postseason by being the best team in MLB’s weakest division. The Cardinals have just what they need to calibrate (again) their way to a division title or a wild-card spot then hope to get hot and lucky in the postseason.
Please … go get Sean Murphy. It’s hardly a radical move that puts the Cardinals at short-term risk, or long-term, risk.
And if the Murphy negotiations with Oakland stall, then close a free-agent deal with Contreras, who would provide more power.
The Cardinals have a dire need at catcher.
And if this is your first chance in 20 years to go get a new starting catcher at a unique time when you desperately need a starting catcher — then there’s no excuse for being timid. Go big. Go for Murphy, or Contreras.
Murphy is the best combination offense-defense catcher on the market as evidenced by his combined 8.4 WAR (third among catchers) over the past two seasons.
Offensively the right-handed hitting Murphy has numbers that are well above average vs. RH pitching. He’s put up impressive slugging numbers when hitting away from an Oakland ballpark that suppresses power. Last season Murphy was 22 percent above league average offensively per wRC+. After a somewhat quiet start to the ‘22 season, Murphy batted .273 with a .357 OBP, .449 slug and .806 OPS over the final four months – performing 37% above league average offensively over that time.
Defense? No worries. Murphy won the Gold Glove in 2021. Over the last two seasons he ranks first among regular MLB catchers in the FanGraphs defensive-metric valuation. (Defensive Runs Above Average, aka DEF.)
Murphy, 28, is under contract control through 2025.
I intend no disrespect here, but if you want the appropriate and rightful successor to Yadier Molina, then trade for the terrific all-around catcher who has been much better than Molina over the past three seasons. That’s Sean Murphy. From 2020 through 2022, Murphy had 9.9. WAR compared to 1.6 for Yadi. With Murphy as the anchor, Oakland catching ranked 5th in the majors over the last two seasons in WAR, with 8.7. The Cardinals? They were dead last (30th) in WAR and below the replacement level at minus 0.6 WAR. With one move — this move — the Cardinals could go from being a bottom-dwelling catching contingent to a top-five catching group for 2023.
I don’t know if this is sad or funny …. or maybe it’s both. But here’s a Cardinal organization that has immense revenue flow, and a treasure trove of prospects, and they can offer more for Murphy than any other team that wants him. As a bonus, getting Murphy will cost them prospects but relatively little money in future salaries through 2025. And blokes like me feel compelled to make a case for making the trade … a trade that should be obvious, a trade that should have been done by now. Prediction: I really think Mozeliak will step up this time and make it happen. But would I wager $100 on that? Umm, well …
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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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.