SAN DIEGO — It took a while, but the first domino of a fascinating offseason catching market has fallen. With the Yadier Molina era officially in the rearview, the St. Louis Cardinals have agreed to a five-year, $87.5 million deal with Willson Contreras, baseball’s top free-agent catcher.
It’s not just that the Cardinals are filling the shoes of a franchise legend in Molina with a player whom their fan base has been rooting against for the past half-decade as one of the faces of the rival Chicago Cubs. Contreras also represents a significant departure stylistically from the kind of player Molina was, especially in the latter part of his career. Since debuting in 2016, Contreras has been the most consistently productive hitter at the catching position this side of JT Realmuto. Contreras’ 128 OPS+ in 2022 was a career-best, and a mark Molina last reached back in 2013. Signing Contreras doesn’t just address an obvious positional need, it also adds legitimate thump to a lineup that lacked depth beyond the MVP-caliber seasons of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and the remarkable last hurrah of Albert Pujols.
Defensively, reviews of Contreras have been mixed over the years. His receiving, framing and blocking have fluctuated from below-average to solid, while his best asset behind the dish is a strong arm and quick release. It’d be unfair to expect any catcher tasked with following Molina to live up to his legendary reputation as one of the great field generals in baseball history. Still, Contreras is an excellent athlete for his position and there’s no reason to think he can’t improve at some of the more subtle elements of catching with his new team. Though Molina may be retired, the standard and example he set in terms of game-planning and in-game adjustments may serve as a useful template for Contreras to lean on in any efforts to improve his defensive chops.
Ultimately, St. Louis decided Contreras’ offensive impact comfortably offset any questions moving forward about his abilities behind the plate, making him the best way to address the most obvious hole on the roster. A longtime Cub in Cardinals threads may take some getting used to, but we won’t have to start thinking about that until spring training. More broadly, this signing has significant ramifications for the rest of the catching market, both in free agency and trade in the coming days.
Here are the biggest questions sparked by Contreras coming off the board:
1. Where does Sean Murphy end up?
Recall that the baseball world arrived at the Winter Meetings at the start of the week to reports that a trade of A’s catcher Sean Murphy was getting close, suggesting that his time in Oakland was all but over. The Cardinals were reportedly in the mix for Murphy but opted for Contreras instead, leaving Murphy for teams like Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and now reportedly Arizona, to put together the best possible package to entice Oakland into finally pulling the trigger.
2. Does a Murphy trade happen before a Blue Jays catcher trade?
With Contreras off the board, we may now be entering something of a staring contest between Oakland and Toronto, as each club looks to ensure they secure the right deal if they are going to trade away a catcher. With Alejandro Kirk, Gabriel Moreno and Danny Jansen, the Blue Jays have multiple options as to whom they could flip, and each of them has a different level of appeal relative to Murphy. We don’t know how the teams pursuing catchers value Murphy versus the Toronto catchers — we cannot assume that the same teams are talking to both Oakland and Toronto. At the same time, the entire catching market is indisputably connected and the sequence of transactions will impact each other no matter what.
3. How do the Astros pivot?
Contreras was reportedly one of Houston’s top targets in free agency, especially following Justin Verlander’s deal with the Mets. Trading within the AL West for Murphy may be unlikely, so perhaps we see the Astros get in the mix for one of the Blue Jays or turn to the next tier of free-agent backstops … which includes who, exactly?
4. Who is the next free-agent catcher to sign?
Unlike with the shortstops or the starting pitching market, where multiple elite options were/are available, Contreras existed clearly in his own tier among his positional peers. The next group includes the likes of Christian Vazquez, Omar Narvaez, Gary Sanchez and Mike Zunino. There’s another slight drop after that to offense-first players like Jorge Alfaro and defensive specialists Austin Hedges, Roberto Perez and Tucker Barnhart. These are all useful players but very few of which are guaranteed upgrades to the current starters on contending teams — that’s what makes Murphy so valuable and attractive in this context, especially with Contreras no longer in play.
5. Do we see a catcher trade or signing happen next?
Teams currently in the mix for a catcher are likely weighing the acquisition costs for the next tier of free agents versus pursuing Murphy or one of the Jays trio. This is where the game of musical chairs really comes into play. Teams that want a catcher don’t want to end up without one of the best options available; teams that want to move a catcher don’t want to wait for their best possible trade partners to fill the position through other avenues. Do the A’s and Jays just wait for all the best free-agent catchers to sign in order to extract more prospect value from a team that loses out on those options? It’s a delicate dance, but the Contreras signing is sure to kickstart more action on the catcher market soon.
Top stories from FOX Sports:
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
Get more from Major League Baseball Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more