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Cardinals catch up on market for Molina's replacement, know they won't 'fill Yadi's shoes'

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LAS VEGAS — When the offseason begins, wants are what warm the hot stove.

Teams want to improve, want the starting pitcher to help them do so, and know what they want to spend to get it. Players want a longer contract or a larger contract or want both and will get it. Teams want options. Players want opt-outs. And there’s usually an executive or two, like Houston’s general manager James Click on Tuesday, who wants clarity on his contract. As much time as there is to fill them before spring training, there are wants.

And then there is the Cardinals’ need.

“When you think about it, we obviously need a catcher,” said John Mozeliak, president baseball of operations. “Somebody has got to catch. Could we not do anything else and still go out and play 162 next year? Of course. But then you’re sort of deciding where those incredible upgrades are and what you can do. That’s the difference between need vs. want.

“Tough position,” he added about catcher. “We know we need it, but we always have to remind ourselves that we’re not filling Yadi’s shoes. With all due respect to whatever we do, it’s going to look a lot different.”

Yadi is, of course, Yadier Molina, the bedrock backstop of the past two decades for the Cardinals. For the first time this millennium, the Cardinals will engage in negotiations to bring in a starting catcher from outside the organization. During a conversation with media Tuesday at the annual GM Meetings, Mozeliak referred to the catcher search as “our initial focus,” and he acknowledged some urgency to identify the best options, whether they’ll cost money or prospects, and then continue other pursuits, such as the “experienced” bat to boost the lineup.

Until the free-agent market opens wide Thursday, teams and agents can only talk framework such as years but not dollars or offers for free agents. The Cardinals met Tuesday with the representatives of free-agent catcher Christian Vazquez to discuss mutual interest. But without dollars in the discussion any talks at this time will be, at most, introductory.

The Cardinals have also discussed what the market will be for three-time All-Star Willson Contreras, who will receive a qualifying offer from the Cubs and reportedly reject it. Contreras is interested in talking with the Cardinals, NBC Sports Chicago reported.

The Cardinals want to leave this week’s meetings, held at Resorts World in Las Vegas, with more intel on the trade market, including discussing fits with Toronto and Oakland. The Athletics are entertaining conversations about Gold Glove-winner Sean Murphy. The Blue Jays are open to trade from their depth of catchers, an exec confirmed. They’re looking for left-handed hitting and have two catchers to discuss, All-Star Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen. With two years of control remaining vs. the 24-year-old Kirk, the 27-year-old Jansen would be the shorter, less-costly move.

“We are in a position where we do not have to do that (trade a catcher) to make our team better,” said Toronto general manager Ross Atkins. “Their versatility, potentially versatility — more so on (top prospect Gabriel) Moreno’s side than the other two is a positive for us.”

Whatever direction talks them, the Cardinals know one eventual outcome.

It will be different.

After more than 20 years of catcher continuity, the Cardinals are “very very” certain their priority starter will come from outside the organization and arrive at the same time as they promote a new pitching coach. That helps define what traits the new catcher needs.

“The responsibility of a catcher directly has leadership demands,” Mozeliak said. “Especially if we’re trying to at least somewhat replicate the processes we’ve built over the past 20 years. Not saying that anybody is going to fill Yadi’s shoes. Yadi did take the lead in a lot of those pitchers meetings. He was someone who gave a lot of advice. To take a step backward — we don’t want to go so far back that we’re shaking our heads. We also now have a new pitching coach, so there’s going to be some — look, there’s change.”

One area where the Cardinals’ choice at catcher could yield the most change is on offense.

In 2022, the Cardinals’ catching group that included Molina, returning backup Andrew Knizner, and prospect Ivan Herrera combined to hit .208 with a .290 slugging percentage. The catchers, as a group, produced in the bottom five for their position in the majors. They had the second-fewest strikeouts (117) but only 118 hits. The Cardinals’ combined catcher OPS of .553 ranked third-lowest, just behind World Series champ Houston’s .557. Contreras’ .815 OPS this past season to go with four seasons of at least 20 home runs would be a significant boost, but it would come at the cost of defense.

Some teams see him as a designated hitter and part-time catcher.

When affixed to a qualifying offer, Contreras will cost a team like the Cardinals their second-highest draft pick and a $500,000 cut from their international bonus purse.

There is other offense at catcher out there. In his past 399 at-bats, Jansen has hit 26 home runs for a .496 slugging percentage and an .817 OPS. Vazquez, 32, had a .759 OPS as Boston’s starter before a trade to Houston, though he’s considered a defense-first catcher with a strong rep for handling pitches.

Mozeliak declined to discuss specific players.

He did acknowledge a lean toward defense.

“I think it’s important because I think it’s what has defined us for so long,” he said. “But we’ll see. Trying to get the catcher we deem the best would be our first choice.”

That they need a catcher at all is not what they hoped after more than a decade of lining up heirs on the runway, waiting for Molina’s eventual retirement. Before Knizner, there was Carson Kelly, who was traded in the Paul Goldschmidt deal to make way for Knizner. And after Knizner, there’s Herrera, a top prospect who struggled in a cameo in the majors, but the Cardinals continue to have “a lot of optimism for Ivan,” Mozeliak said. That does not, however, translate to the Cardinals only looking at short-term or bridge catchers.

The door has been opened for the team to look for the catcher they need now and be open to making a move for the catcher they want for years to come.

But the shopping list doesn’t stop at home plate.

“I hope our needs and wants are the same because ultimately that should be the way you think about filling what you need — it’s really what you want,” Mozeliak said. “You always try to solve your problems internally and when you can’t do that then there’s the trade market or the free agent market. The good news is, it’s Nov. 8 and not Jan. 8. Then it might be more of a challenge. …

“We can see how things unfold.”

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon discuss what Arenado walking away from a shot at free agency should mean for the team moving forward.

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