Yadier Molina is arguably the greatest catcher in Major League Baseball today. His leadership, ability to call a game, management of the pitching staff, defensive prowess, and offensive numbers make him a perennial MVP candidate. However, he turns 32 years old this July. As we all know, when a player hits his mid 30s, his numbers are likely to begin to decline. This is especially amplified for catchers. The wear and tear that position takes on a body is far more severe than any other position on the field. Just take a look at his knee issues from last season. Within the next couple years, the St. Louis Cardinals will likely have to find a replacement for Yadi. Is there currently a prospect in their farm system that could fill Yadi’s shoes? Or will the Cardinals have to look outside the organization?
I remember back in 2004 when Mike Matheny was catcher of the Cardinals. He won a gold glove for the Cardinals in 2000 and 2003, and was on his way to win it again in 2004. He was one of the greatest defensive catchers I had ever seen, and had those leadership skills I mentioned earlier with Yadi. Matheny was highly respected by the coaching staff and pitching staff, and really everyone in the organization. He was the kind of player I wished could play for the Cardinals forever. Of course, in 2004 he was 33 and battling some nagging injuries, as well as concussion issues. I knew his career was nearing its end. Being somewhat a pessimist, I never thought the Cardinals had a chance at getting a replacement player that would be half of what Matheny was. Then, along came Yadi. Sure, it took him a few years to win that first gold glove, and his first few seasons offensively were less than desirable. But look at him now.
Currently the Cardinals have back up catcher Tony Cruz, Rob Johnson, Ed Easley, Travis Tartamella, Audry Perez, Carson Kelly, Casey Rasmus, Cody Stanley, and Steve Bean as possible catchers of the future. These players were all either invited to Spring Training, or are young and have been highly touted. Let’s go ahead and eliminate Tony Cruz and Rob Johnson from this list. Cruz is a solid back up catcher, and is still young, but his oWAR (-0.4) and dWAR (0.0) show he is simply an average catcher. Rob Johnson fits in that category as well, although he is the same age as Yadi. Ed Easley was invited to spring training this season and put up decent numbers (.333 avg, .733 OPS in 10 PA). He has spent 7 seasons in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system. In his two seasons in AAA, Easley proved to be above average offensively (.314 avg, .819 OPS). However, he seems to be quite average defensively (.990 fielding percentage and 28% caught stealing). As for Travis Tartamella, he has already spent 5 seasons in the Cardinals farm system, and only 53 games at the AAA level. His offensive numbers this spring training and at the minor league level have not been very impressive. Tartamella sports a .993 fielding percentage and has caught 32% of base stealers.
As John Nagel wrote, Perez, Rasmus, Stanley, Bean, and Kelly are the top 5 catchers to watch in the Cardinals system. I would have to agree, although I would rank Easley above Perez. Audry Perez has seen some (albeit very little) playing time in the big leagues. But, his minor league offensive numbers aren’t quite as attractive as Easley’s. Defensively, he quite good having caught 35% of base stealers. Casey Rasmus (brother of Colby Rasmus) hasn’t fully blossomed offensively, but his defensive numbers show a lot of potential. He has a fielding percentage of .990 and has caught 46% of base stealers. Cody Stanley seems to be above average defensively, and quite average offensively. He does have some pop in his bat (26 HR in 302 games). Steve Bean is a bit of a wild card right now due to his lack of playing time (66 games catching in Rookie Ball). But, from everything I have read about him, he has a lot of potential. It will be interesting to watch his numbers if he can stay healthy and move up in the system.
On to Carson Kelly. As I wrote prior to the start of spring training, Kelly was a young talent to keep an eye on. Mainly due to the conversion from third base to catcher. In 2 minor league seasons he has averaged .246 at the plate with a .674 OPS. He has 15 home runs in 630 at bats. If he can make the switch from third base to catcher, and reach his full potential at the plate, in my opinion he has the best chance of being Molina’s replacement. The question then becomes, how long will it take Kelly to reach that potential? Not only does his bat have to come alive, but mastering the art of catching will prove to be a difficult task.
Hopefully, one of the prospects named above, or perhaps a future prospect, or even a player acquired via trade can fill the void after Yadi can no longer play catcher for the Cardinals. I always thought Matheny was irreplaceable, but the Cardinals had his replacement waiting in the wings. I expect John Mozeliak is, or will soon be, prepared with the proper talent to replace Molina. Another issue I haven’t mentioned that Mozeliak has to take in to account with these prospects are their intangibles. I really cannot judge how they will handle a pitching staff, what their leadership qualities will be. The way Molina communicates with the pitchers and manages the game, similar to how Matheny did before him, really outweighs his defensive dominance and offensive contributions.
Now, when the time comes where Molina cannot catch anymore, what do the Cardinals do with him? He is signed through 2017 (will be 35 years old), with an option for 2018. Maybe Yadi will be able to catch until his contract expires. Or, maybe perhaps the Cardinals can try to do as the Minnesota Twins are doing with Joe Mauer and convert Molina to a first baseman. I would really hope they keep him in the organization. The fans love him, his teammates look up to him and respect him, and he is a great leader. He is the type of guy you want in your clubhouse. Plus, it would be great to see him spend his entire career with St. Louis. Ultimately I suppose it is up to Mr. Molina himself. Maybe all he wants to do is play catcher and he will retire when he can no longer effectively do it. Maybe he will test the free agent markets. Only time will tell. Until then, let’s hope for continued success on an already incredible career.
Thanks for reading.