The Cardinals must soon determine Ivan Herrera's fate

The St. Louis Cardinals can traverse one of three paths to clarify Ivan Herrera's murky future.
Baltimore Orioles v St. Louis Cardinals
Baltimore Orioles v St. Louis Cardinals / Brandon Sloter/GettyImages

When Willson Contreras broke his arm on May 7, the St. Louis Cardinals were granted a taste of tomorrow behind the plate. But over a 39-game stretch where Ivan Herrera stepped in as the team's catcher, the Cardinals have come away grimacing. Herrera has displayed an inability to control the running game, surrendering 40 stolen bases in 43 attempts.

Contreras just began his rehab assignments and should join the Cardinals within the next few weeks. Pedro Pages was promoted for the purposes of backing up Herrera, but as the Cardinals have observed Pages catch circles around Herrera and slowly given Pages more playing time, they must make a decision on what to do about Herrera, who was for years considered to be the long-term answer at catcher after Yadier Molina's retirement. They have three feasible options on how to handle Herrera.

1. Trade him

Contreras' contract runs through 2027, with a club option for 2028. His defense has improved significantly in his second year in St. Louis, perhaps delaying the inevitable shift to first base or designated hitter duties. With Contreras potentially catching longer than the Cardinals anticipated, Herrera could be stuck in a backup role for an extended period, thus recreating his time behind Molina and allowing him to waste away on the bench.

Herrera is is a strong hitter and would ideally see regular gameplay, whether it be at catcher or designated hitter. This season, he has hit .274 in 164 at-bats. The Cardinals would likely be able to net a decent return if they were to dangle Herrera in trade talks, especially to teams that believe they can make Herrera's arm serviceable.

If the Cardinals were to deal Herrera, Pages would take over as Contreras' primary caddy. Once Contreras ages out of the primary catcher position and assuming Pages is not proficient enough at the plate for a regular role, either Jimmy Crooks or Leonardo Bernal could be ready for a shot if they continue to play well in the minor leagues.

Trading Herrera would require the Cardinals to have faith in their other backstops, but it could be the most rewarding solution if they are able to involve Herrera in a deal to address a more pressing need, such as a No. 2 starting pitcher.

2. Convert him to a new position

Several players have unlocked more at the plate after stepping out from behind it. Dale Murphy and Mike Sweeney are two catchers who excelled offensively after tossing aside the tools of ignorance early in their careers, and Herrera could be a candidate to move to first base if the Cardinals decide not to re-sign Paul Goldschmidt after 2024.

The likely favorite to become a full-time first baseman for the Cardinals if they move on from Goldschmidt is Alec Burleson, but Herrera could throw a wrench into those plans. If the Cardinals believe that Herrera has the potential to improve his already stellar hitting ability, they could start by platooning Herrera and Burleson at the cold corner in 2025 and using one of them for frequent designated hitter duties as well. 

If the Cardinals wanted to go this route, they could cut their ties with Matt Carpenter once Contreras is healthy and allow Pages to remain as the backup catcher. Herrera's bat is too good for him to languish in Memphis, so when he's not playing designated hitter, a few looks at first base when the Cardinals want to get Goldschmidt off of his feet this season would be ideal.

The Cardinals would probably rather avoid this option unless they believe Herrera's hitting ability outweighs any potential defensive improvements by an incredible margin. Still, it's an intriguing option and one that the Cardinals have the flexibility to attempt.

3. Keep him behind the plate

The Cardinals are a notoriously risk-averse organization, so they may want to continue staying the course and see if Herrera can improve behind the plate before they deal him or abandon his catching prospects.

There is reason for the Cardinals to hold out hope for Herrera's defense. President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak hired Molina before the season to serve as a special assistant. Although he has yet to appear in St. Louis, Molina could eventually be an incredibly valuable resource to Herrera in honing the finer points of catching.

How much Molina can affect Herrera's ability to nab basestealers isn't as clear, as arm accuracy, pop time and ball transfers look to be more intuitive than easily teachable. But if anyone can teach those skills, it's Molina.

Pages has played exceptionally well defensively, but although he has knocked two home runs to this point, he is still hitting just .132. The Cardinals might not believe that Pages will be able to hit enough to make it even as a long-term backup in the major leagues.

If the Cardinals are committed to keeping Herrera behind the plate, Pages is ticketed to Memphis when Contreras returns. The Cardinals have taken it slowly with Herrera in his developmental years, and they will likely remain careful and deliberate with him if they believe he is still their best long-term answer at catcher.

It appears that Contreras' return is closer than anyone could have imagined after he shattered his arm on that fateful J.D. Martinez swing. With Herrera's playing time dwindling as teams run at will, the Cardinals are about to be faced with a tough decision on the young catcher's career.