In 2004, a promising young catcher named Yadier Molina appeared in 51 games for the St. Louis Cardinals. Molina quickly developed a reputation as an elite defensive catcher with a rocket for an arm. He became the team's primary catcher for the 2005 season, and held that role for the next 18 consecutive seasons. Molina's bat steadily improved over his first few seasons, and he led the Cardinals to World Series titles in 2006 and 2011. Yadier Molina retired as a legend with a compelling case for induction into MLB's Hall of Fame.
Cardinals officials and fans alike have agonized over finding the next Yadier Molina for much of the past decade. As Molina aged, though his bat became less potent, he remained an elite defensive catcher, revered for his strong clubhouse presence. This led the Cardinals to pass on a number of interesting replacements, each of whom had been, at one point in time, labeled "Yadi's heir."
2023 was the Cardinals' first season without the beloved "Yadi" since his 2004 debut. Many fans have cited his departure as a key component in the Cardinals' disastrous season. Following Molina's retirement after the 2022 season, the Cardinals embarked on a search for their next long-term catcher. Two options emerged in late 2022. It became clear that the Cardinals would either trade for the Athletics' Sean Murphy or sign free agent Willson Contreras. Ultimately, the Cardinals elected to sign Willson Contreras after balking at Oakland's high asking price.
While Contreras' expected metrics have been mostly in line with his career numbers, Murphy has blossomed into one of baseball's best catchers. Murphy has played excellent defense, while his OPS of .935 is near the top of the NL leaderboard, regardless of position. Simply put, he is the best catcher in the National League right now. After trading for Murphy, the Braves immediately signed him to a team-friendly extension, meaning he will likely remain in Atlanta through the 2029 season. These events have led many to lament that the Cardinals should have chosen Murphy over Contreras.
Whether the Cardinals made a mistake or not, they cannot change the past. They only move forward with the catchers currently in their organization as they plan for 2024 and beyond. This article will examine those options and try to project their impact on the 2024 season.