Thursday, February 23, 2012

UCB Roundtable: Cardinals Catchers

While I'm mainly blogging over at Redbird Rants these days, here is the latest UCB Roundtable.

Question: Yadier Molina has said he is open to talks during the season to discuss a contract extension. If the Cards and Molina cannot come to an agreement during the season, we may see repeat of this past offseason. Is there a catcher in the minor league system that you feel is ready for the show?

Corey Noles: Good question. I wish I had a better answer. Tony Cruz will play some backup this year as will Koyie Hill who was signed in January. With that being said, none of those guys are the answer as far as I'm concerned and this is a question I think we need to pay serious attention to immediately. If Yadi goes to free agency, he's gone. Someone will pay him half again more than he's worth. In Sunday's interview he gave the impression that he didn't really care either way. Frankly, if we haven't signed him by late June, I would start shopping him so we get more out of him than a draft pick. Maybe I'm wrong and he'll stay, but my optimism on that subject is wearing quite thin. The local people here will be chasing me with pitchforks after today's paper is out and they see my column on this subject.

To make a long answer short, I don't believe the next long-term catcher for the Cardinals is in the organization at this time. I think they will be looking outside because frankly it's the weakest position in our farm system at the moment.

Bill Ivie: Pay very close attention to Bryan Anderson this Spring. Kid has a solid bat and is a much better defender than we have heard. He has worked closely with Matheny in the past and now has a better relationship with the guys he will need to be in good with.

The team may not rush to judgement in this situation. There are currently 27 catchers poised to be free agents this coming off season. Yadi is certainly the jewel of that group, but there are some solid names out there (Napoli, McCann, Iannetta) that will have them at least kick the tires, I'm sure.

The same as I felt last year, I feel something gets done and he stays. But we see how last year turned out.

Dathan Brooks: Hard to imagine anyone closer to ready than Cruz, though, based on what I've seen so far, I wouldn't name him the heir apparent in the event of Yadi's departure. (You know, since I see so much Cardinals minor league ball, and am such an expert and all) I tend to agree, the Cardinals may have to look outside the organization to find a replacement catcher of Yadi's caliber. I suppose you could put a band-aid back there, someone of medium quality. Of course, doing so long-term may not bode well for handling young up & coming guys like Miller, Martinez at the front, Sanchez & others at the back.

Short answer: No, I don't think anyone in the system is ready for the big show, should Yadi not return next year.

Daniel Shoptaw: Nobody is ready to step in right now, there's little doubt about that. Will that be the case next year, when we actually (in theory) need a replacement? That's a different story. Another year of development for either Tony Cruz or Bryan Anderson could indicate to us that they could step in and at least not be a drag on the team, even if they aren't necessarily a net positive.

My gut feeling, though, is that the Cards use one of these draft picks they've stockpiled for the June draft to pick a catcher that might be a fast mover. So even if they have to go into the free agent market, they can limit their exposure to just a couple of years before Prospect C is available.

Ray DeRousse
: I was calling for a trade of Molina last summer for a variety of reasons. Mainly, it's the fact that the Cardinals will never pay top dollar at catcher; the position is too physically demanding to risk huge payroll. If the Cards were unwilling to risk big money on Pujols at a relatively comfortable position, they certainly will not do so for a catcher.

I've been whining about Bryan Anderson for two years now. He was in TLR's doghouse for whatever reason. Maybe he didn't genuflect when he first met TLR... I don't know. But I've wanted the kid to get a chance to be groomed by Molina before he left. Some of that opportunity has been lost due to TLR's idiocy.

I'm perfectly comfortable with Anderson/Cruz. Hopefully we get somebody good in the Molina deal this summer ;-)

Christopher Carelli: I do not think there is anyone in the system who would be ready to jump into the role next season. Cruz, Anderson, and Hill all project to be backups. I agree with Corey in that the Cardinals have paid little attention to the catcher position in their system. If Molina leaves, the Cards would have to look to the free agent market, or try to swing a trade.

Tyler: There's no doubt we're really in a tight spot when it comes to the Catcher position. There is no one in the system below Yadier capable of handling a full-time role as this team's backstop, no one. Cruz and Anderson are both at their ceiling as backups and there is simply nothing behind them.

Yadier is going to command a ton of money at a point when his career should be hitting its downward slope. If recent history tells us much, the Cardinals front office was willing to let the biggest fish of all swim away because of too great a command at the wrong point in his career. But how much of that was due to both the short term and potential long term replacements for that player in Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, and Matt Adams? For which there are none at the 2 spot on the field.

Bob Netherton
: Absolutely, and it is Tony Cruz. And it is why I think he will go back to Memphis to play as the every day catcher instead of making the big club out of spring training. He has always been in a pretty even platoon, which limits him to 75-80 games, leaving questions of whether or not he can bear the load of every day work. That is the only knock on Cruz, so I'm curious why there is some negativity with regard to catchers in the system. It is not fair to compare Cruz to Molina of 2012, just like it is not fair to compare Matt Adams (1B) to Prince Fielder of today, but if you look at where the two are at this point in their careers versus those two players at that same point, you get a very favorable outlook.

Defensively, Tony Cruz is the real deal. Offensively, he's not an empty bat. Can he call a major league game, who knows ? But with Mike Matheny at the helm, and Derrek Lilliquist by his side, he will learn, and quickly.

Also, don't count Bryan Anderson out. I don't think he will be a Yadier Molina, but he might be a very good backstop, trading some offense for a drop in the Hall of Fame caliber defense. The kid has done everything the organization has asked him to do, and he worked hard on his offense last year - and it showed.

I also like Charlie Cutler a lot. He was taken by the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft, but I can't see him on their major league roster for the entire year. Like Brian Broderick last year, he should return.

Steven Hill is beginning to look like he has a big league bat.

I do believe that the Cardinals will try very hard to extend Molina for another 3 to 4 years. When we get to early July, if the Cardinals are out of it and Molina remains unsigned, expect him to be traded. I am not expecting either of those to happen, but if they do .....

Mark Tomasik: There’s no obvious replacement, but the Cardinals have the right manager in Mike Matheny to identify a capable replacement through acquisition.

Mark Whitener: Great question, and I think it leads to a clear conclusion in the end: Yadier Molina is, and was, the most irreplaceable player on the Cardinals.

Bryan Anderson for years seemed like he was destined to be the answer, and so much so, that he would have to be moved due to being blocked by Yadi. However, it doesn't seem like that's the case anymore. Of course he needs more at-bats and opportunity to make a difference, but if he was such an undeniable Major League talent (like Yadi was when he sat behind, and ultimately moved out of town, his current manager), he wouldn't have sat in the minors behind two years of Jason LaRue & a year of Gerald Laird.

Cruz seems to have a solid bat and is the type that can be worked into a lineup as needed, but his future seems to be as more of a Brandon Inge type, that mans the corner infield & rotates at catcher as well. Not an everyday guy.

Yadi is currently irreplaceable based on what we have behind him, and unlike with Albert, if he books town we will be gross unprepared to fill in his void. Hopefully however, this isn't a dilemma we have to approach for another 5 years or so, and in that time as was already mentioned, we will have a chance to draft and groom at least 2 possible replacements.

J.E. Powell: Like most of my fellow bloggers have pointed out, Bryan Anderson and Tony Cruz seem the likeliest choices, though, I am not completely sold on either one yet. If Molina ends up leaving, in my opinion, the Cards would probably go get a veteran catcher and have a platoon of catchers, Anderson/Cruz/veteran, behind the plate in 2013. At least until they can find a full time replacement from the farm system (which, of course, could include Anderson or Cruz) or can find one via free agency for a 2-3 year contract.

If Molina does not end up being traded during the season I can see a, albeit it a toned down, version of Pujols this past offseason. I think Anderson and Cruz are good enough to be, at the very least, a stopgap measure until a full time replacement emerges.

Chris Mallonee: Catcher is in my opinion the hardest position to predict major league value at. It's very hard to project Minor League numbers into major league equivalents. How well do you measure a guys ability to manage a big-league staff and earn the pitchers trust? How do you measure their ability to direct traffic in the field in any number of situations, calm down a flustered pitcher, etc. I think you guys get where I'm going...

In addition to all that, they have to be able to provide enough value at the plate to stay in the lineup. This is a position where I have to trust the coaches more than others in terms of who they give a shot in the majors.

If Anderson, Cruz, and Hill earn a shot in the coaches opinion to get some major league playing time, I'm good with it. If they don't perform, the organization has a TON of flexibility to go out and get somebody.

Tom Knuppel: It doesn't appear we have any catchers in the system that can be a regular that would make most happy. I suspect the draft picks will go along way to solve that issue.

Kevin Reynolds: FYI - I usually try to answer the question without reading everyone else's responses to answer honestly, so I apologize if I "steal your answer" :)

I think the Yadier situation is drastically different than the Pujols situation for three primary reasons: 1) Pujols and his money-eating contract is not here. That frees up a ton of money to sign someone. 2) Catchers just don't make as much as sluggers...even catchers as uniquely gifted as Yadi. 3) Berkman was a clear and planned back-up plan to Albert...he was in place and ready to go if Pujols left...there is no such back-up plan for Yadi. If Yadi leaves, the drop-off in production, etc. is going to be significantly noticeable.

All that being said...I believe one of the reasons talks have halted between the club and Molina is simply because they were negotiating without knowing what they have in Anderson and/or Cruz. No one really knows if either catcher can become a regular starter at the MLB level, yet. This spring is likely going to be used to find the answer to that question. It could clarify the Cardinals' negotiating position with Molina.

Also, I believe one similarity between Yadi and Albert is that the Cardinals would be willing to pay them both more than they would another free agent at the same position. Albert meant something special to Cardinal Nation and organization in a lot of ways. To a lesser degree, Yadi is in a similar position. The Cardinals, I believe, will be willing to pay Yadi more money than they would a free agent catcher to replace him. If Yadi signs elsewhere, I believe their preference would be to plug a Cruz/Anderson pairing into the lineup and spend the money saved elsewhere.

To directly answer the question...No. For my money, the Cardinals have to re-sign Molina. I did not necessarily believe that until Albert left. Now, the Cardinals face losing two modern-day icons, fan favorites, and Core players to this club two offseasons in a row.

To me, that just can't happen.

I don't believe Anderson or Cruz have the skills to replace Molina directly, but we may learn that one of them can do enough to allow the Cardinals to improve at another position and balance out the loss. But given what Molina does behind the plate, to the running game, for the pitchers, as a leader, and now as an offensive piece...I just don't see him being as "easy" to replace as losing an aging slugger on the decline.

So...the answer is "No" this time...but we could see enough from Cruz/Anderson to convince the Cardinals the answer to that question might be "Yes" after one more season of work.

Rodney Knuppel: Tony Cruz is the next best option, but I'm not sure he is MLB caliber. I'd like to look at possibly trading Molina to be honest.

Nick: I think the answer depends on your definition of “ready”. I think Cruz could be a passable catcher just based on his defense, and the Cardinals’ propensity to emphasize catcher defense. I’m still not sure what they have with Bryan Anderson – he seems very Tyler Greene-ish to me. Everyone chalks up his falling off of prospect lists, etc to La Russa, but the fact is that he just hasn’t performed. Until he can do that, he’s not going to be handed anything, whether TLR is around or not.

The free agent market for 2013 appears to be strong right now, and as previously mentioned, there may be an opportunity to spread the wealth a bit as they did with the “Pujols Dividend” – take the money earmarked for Molina and get a good defensive replacement at catcher and an upgrade at say, second base, in order to replace the production from both positions by upgrading at second.