The annual MLB winter meetings open this weekend in San Diego, as high-ranking members of the 30 baseball front offices huddle with each other and player agents to explore options and weigh the risks and rewards of potential free-agent signings and trades.
We all know that the Cardinals want a catcher. They continue to tamp down on the wild speculation over their alleged interest in mega-expensive, free-agent shortstops. There’s the usual palaver over their search for a left-handed bat. They are said to be interested in looping back to sign free-agent lefty starter Jose Quintana, who made such a positive impression after arriving in St. Louis at the 2022 trade deadline.
Thoughts and Questions:
1) If the Cardinals go for a free-agent catcher, how much is ownership-management willing to spend? Willson Contreras will have the most extravagant cost. Christian Vazquez won’t be cheap – but his price will be more economical. There are other free-agent fellows out there, but they are of the platoon-bat variety (Omar Narvaez) or the overripe/overrated (Tucker Barnhart.)
Contreras has the best bat — ranking third in slugging among catchers over the past two seasons – but is slightly below-average defensively. But his shortcomings behind the plate have been exaggerated to the point of comedy. Vazquez is more skilled and consistent defensively … but is at best an average hitter.
Over the last two seasons Contreras ranks fourth among regular catchers in Wins Above Replacement – which is well above Vazquez, who ranks 22nd in WAR over that time. As a bonus Contreras – who turns 31 in May – could pivot to a DH role as he ages. The Cardinals have young catching on the way.
The Astros are pursuing Contreras and will likely be aggressive in the size of their contract proposal. And the Astros can also offer the short-shot, easy-home run lure of the Crawford Boxes in left field at Minute Maid Park. There are no Crawford Boxes at Busch Stadium. But Contreras reveres the retired Yadier Molina and is said to be eager to succeed his idol as the STL catcher. According to one media report, Contreras met with Cardinals officials Wednesday in Florida and the talks went well. We’ll know more about all of this once interested teams begin placing offers on the table.
2) If the Cardinals secure a catcher via trade, will it be Oakland’s Sean Murphy or one of the Toronto guys – Danny Jansen or Alejandro Kirk? That’s assuming that the Blue Jays are less willing to part with the young Gabriel Moreno, who will be under contract control through 2027.
Murphy is drawing the most interest for two reasons: (A) he has the best combination of offense and defense, and (B) he’s under team contract control through 2025. The prospect-package price to land Murphy will be steep, and it’s being driven higher by multiple teams making a push for him. But as I reported several weeks ago, the Cardinals were among the first teams to engage the A’s in conversations about Murphy.
3) Having been burned in the Marcell Ozuna trade that cost them Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen, the Cardinals may be reluctant to part with elite prospects to make the Murphy deal happen. The sting of giving up Alcantara and Gallen hasn’t subsided. In fairness, the pre-2018 deal looked reasonable at the time. But going into the 2023 season the Cardinals are still paying for their mistake.
In 2022, Alcantara had a 2.28 ERA and 5.7 WAR over 228.2 innings and won the NL Cy Young award. Gallen had a 2.54 ERA and 4.3 WAR in 184 innings at Arizona. The entire group of St. Louis starters had a combined 10.5 WAR in 2022. Alcantara and Gallen combined for nearly as much WAR (10.0) as the entire contingent of Cards starters. OUCH!
4) As for the Toronto catchers … contrary to the inaccurate public perception, Kirk is superior defensively to Jansen and has the more dependable track record as a hitter. But Kirk is under contract control for four more seasons, and the price of obtaining him will be high. Jansen slugged .516 last season, and the trade exchange figures to be lower because he can become a free agent after the 2024 season. That said, Jansen has caught more than 72 games only one time in five seasons.
5) The Cardinals have promising catching prospects in development. Will that make the Redbirds more conservative in their pursuit of a veteran and more more expensive catcher? And don’t assume that Ivan Herrera is the golden-child inheritor of the Molina legacy. Herrera made his big-league debut last season and clearly wasn’t ready for the big time.
Say hello to Leonardo Bernal. In its updated St. Louis prospect ratings Baseball Prospectus has Herrera rated 10th on a list of 20. Bernal is ranked at No. 6. Why Bernal? Because the compelling teenage talent from Panama is a switch hitter who slugged .455 at Class A Palm Beach last season at age 18.
The Cardinals thought so highly of Bernal they gave him their largest signing bonus ($680,000) of any international player signed by the team in early 2021. Scouts note how the Cardinals were aggressive in placing Berbal in the Florida State League at such a young age. Bernal is viewed as a much stronger hitter from the left side, which gives him added appeal.
This, from Baseball Prospectus: “It’s a long path from an 18-year-old catcher in A-ball to the majors, and Bernal doesn’t have much to give back at the plate if the usual offensive attrition takes hold as he makes his way through the minors. But he’s an advanced prospect on both offense and defense already, and any gains with the hit tool, especially from the right side, could move him into the Top 101 (prospect) conversation before he’s legally able to drink.”
Even is he continues to develop in an exciting way, Bernal won’t be in the majors anytime soon. But as is the case with Herrera the Cardinals may want to bring in a veteran starting catcher to do the job before the next two or three seasons until one of the catching prospects is ready to go.
6) Signing Carlos Correa or Trea Turner to play shortstop would elevate the Cardinals offensively, and deepen the lineup. And with apologies to Tommy Edman, Correa would upgrade the shortstop position defensively. Edman is an above-average shortstop – but an elite second baseman. Over the last five seasons Correa leads all MLB shortstops with 50 Defensive Runs Saved. Over the same five seasons (2018-2022) Correa and Turner have turned in similar performances offensively – though Turner is a much better baserunner than Correa. As for the age factor, Correa (28 years old) is 15 months younger than Turner.
7) I don’t know why I’m even talking about this. The Cardinals have never handed out a free-agent contract larger than their seven-year, $120 million deal with Matt Holliday before the 2010 season. So why would we think they’re fired up about the idea of spending $250 million or more on a free-agent shortstop? As president of baseball ops John Mozeliak said to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic this week: “Tommy Edman is a very, very good shortstop.” There’s your answer. Tommy’s the guy for the Cardinals.
8) I wrote about this earlier this week, but there’s a shortage of LH hitters in the majors. In 2022, only 39.5 percent of MLB plate appearances were taken by lefty bats, the lowest rate since 1989. In terms of free agency, there isn’t much LH-bat impact out there for the Cardinals to chase. Not unless they’re willing to pay up or otherwise win a bidding contest for free-agent center fielder Brandon Nimmo, free-agent center fielder Cody Bellinger, or perhaps free-agent left fielder Andrew Benintendi. (Beware Benintendi’s history of power-diminishing hand injuries.)
9) There are some other LH-batting candidates to think about, and this by no means is a complete list:
— Michael Brantley, 35, who has been a deluxe hitter for a long time. But he’s struggled to stay healthy, and is pretty much limited to playing a role in left field or serving as DH.
— Michael Conforto, the outfielder that’s attracting interest after missing all of 2022 to rehab a surgically repaired shoulder. Through 2020 Conforto had a .484 slug, .358 OBP and was 28 percent above league average offensively per OPS+.
— Outfielder Tyler Naquin, who has a .486 slugging percentage and .808 OPS vs. RH pitchers over the last two seasons.
— Joey Gallo. He has a unique hitting profile that features a career .469 slug, 37 percent strikeout rate and 15% walk rate. He had a poor 2022 season, striking out 42 percent of the time for the Yankees and Dodgers. He can play corner outfield, a little center field, and has taken turns at first base and third base. He’s terrific defensively when playing either corner-outfield spot.
— Ben Gamel, who is mostly a corner outfielder but can fill in at center. Over the last two seasons he has a 14% walk rate, a .355 onbase percentage and .408 slug vs. RHP.
— Jurickson Profar, a switch-hitter who hits about the same from each side of the plate. He’s been a league-average hitter (100 OPS+) over the past two seasons. The Padres mostly used him in left field but he can also play 2B and shortstop.
— Matt Carpenter, anyone? He’s coming off a giant comeback year with the Yankees in which he batted .305 with a .412 OBP, .727 slug and 1.138 OPS. Having Matt Holliday as bench coach could matter more than we think. Holliday was one of the people who helped rebuild Carpenter’s swing and approach before the 2022 season.
10) According to multiple media reports the Cardinals would like to sign Quintana to reinforce their rotation. But quite a few teams took note of Quintana’s 1.85 ERA in his 13 starts for the Cardinals – postseason outing included – and we don’t know how high the Cardinals are willing to go financially to bring him back. What the Cardinals really need is a legitimate No. 1 starter with a heavy strikeout punch … but those guys are in great demand and very expensive be it free agency or trade.
11) The Cardinals have money to spend, though the payroll is unlikely to increase as much as many fans hope or expect. In a well-researched report, Derrick Goold of STLtoday estimates that the Cardinal payroll will go up by $15 million, with a chance of increasing by $20 million. And the Redbirds have plenty of prospects to barter. This is a question of attitude, and aggressiveness. The Cardinals can take a big leap to improve the team for 2023. Or they can take steps that aren’t as costly or risky.
12) But the money is definitely there. This past week Disney purchased the final 15 percent of BAMTech, the digital streaming company which was developed by MLB Advanced Media 20-plus years ago. Disney bought the vast majority of shares of BamTech back around 2017, and that created a financial windfall for MLB owners. In this latest deal, Disney paid $900 million to scoop up the remaining 15% of BamTech – which means a $30 million cut for each of the 30 MLB teams. Free money. The Cardinals can afford to do anything they want to do.
FINALLY: In a recent podcast with Dan McLaughlin and Brian Walton, the guys discussed rules changes that were implemented in the minors as a test run before coming to MLB in 2023. One revelation: the pitch-timer clock reduced game times by an average of 25 minutes in 2022. You really should give this Danny Mac pod a listen because it has a load of interesting information about new rules that will likely alter the competition at the big-league level.
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.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
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.