The Cardinals have tried to develop a number of catcher-of-the-future candidates over the last few years of Yadier Molina’s career, but they chose instead to replace him via free agency, giving former Cub Willson Contreras a five-year, $87.5 million deal that will fill the spot in a completely different way from how Molina did.
Contreras is a bat-first catcher, which is a big shift from Molina, whose value over the last nine years has almost all been in his glove — he had just one above-average season at the plate during that span. Contreras was one of the best offensive catchers in baseball last year, ranking only behind Adley Rutschman and Willson’s own brother, William, in wRC+ (minimum 300 PA). He makes a lot of very hard contact, ranking third among catchers in hard-hit percentage and posting the single highest exit velocity for any catcher last year at 116.2 mph (which is more fun trivia than meaningful info), which helps make up for his high swing-and-miss rates.
He’s also reasonably patient for a catcher, and gets hit by a lot of pitches; over the last five years, his OBP has been a full 50 points higher than Molina’s, which would have amounted to about 21 more times on base per 162 games over the retired Cardinals great. He’s not the framer Yadier was, or the receiver, and we could probably argue all day about what Molina’s game-calling was worth, but what we can measure says the Cardinals just added between three and 3.5 wins with one signing, which, at this AAV, seems like a great deal — one the Cubs probably should have matched.
There’s some age risk here, as catching is a brutal position, of course, and one of Yadi’s most valuable traits was his ability to carry such a high workload right up until his final season — he caught at least 110 games in his age-34, 35, 36, and 38 seasons, missing age 37 because of the pandemic. The Contreras deal only takes him through age 35, and it’s not that uncommon for catchers to still catch regularly through that age, but he also offers a bit of an out because his bat is valuable enough to play somewhere else. If he’s a part-time catcher and part-time DH in the last year of his deal, he will probably still be worth the roster spot and has a reasonable chance to produce enough to justify the salary.