The long-pondered question of who could fill the shoes at the catcher position for the Cardinals once Yadier Molina retired was answered on Wednesday. St. Louis reached an agreement on a five-year deal with free-agent catcher Willson Contreras, sources confirmed to the Post-Dispatch. The deal is pending a physical and was not made official by Wednesday evening on the west coast.
With Contreras, the Cardinals got the everyday catcher they hoped to land this offseason. Along with that, his signing could provide the stability at the major-league level that avoids a rush of developmental tracks down in the minors for Cardinals catching prospects.
For 22-year-old Ivan Herrera, the free-agent splash means more time in the minor leagues to get innings behind the plate and at-bats before he could find a regular role on the Cardinals roster in the years to come.
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Over his minor-league career, Herrera owns a .276/.375/.396 slash line since making his professional debut during the 2017 Dominican Summer League. His offensive production took a dip in 2021 when he hit .231 in 363 at-bats with Class AA Springfield. This past season, he hit .268 and produced a .770 OPS across 65 games with Class AAA Memphis as he split time behind the plate with Pedro Pages for part of the season.
Herrera — a native of Panama — got his first sample of the major leagues in the form of 11 games in June and July when Molina was placed on the injured list. In his limited opportunities, Herrera collected two hits — both singles — and drove in a run over 18 at-bats while striking out eight times.
"I still think there's some development that needs to happen,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said of Herrera back in October during an end-of-season press conference. “He's a little bit of a different profile in the sense of he swings the bat really well down at Triple-A, but when he came up here, we weren't seeing that offensive production. I think there's a maturity curve there that has to happen. Still bullish on him, but not sure you could just say, 'Let's pencil those two in.' I think there's more opportunity out there.”
Now that the Cardinals have found who they will regularly pencil in at catcher, other prospects like Herrera are set up to get the time they need.
That includes someone in the lower minors like Leonardo Bernal. Bernal, 18, was one of the notable international signings the Cardinals made last winter. Signed out of Panama, Bernal made his debut with Class Low-A Palm Beach this year. The switch-hitter finished the year with a .256 average, seven home runs, 29 RBIs, and a .771 OPS over 45 games in a league where he was over three years younger than the average hitter.
Beyond the pair of Panamanian prospects, the Cardinals' farm system also contains Pages, who went unprotected and untouched in Wednesday’s Rule 5 draft. Pages, 24, was one of eight Cardinals prospects sent to the Arizona Fall League after reaching the Class AAA level for the first time this season and was named by Baseball America as the best defensive catcher in the Cardinals’ farm system heading into 2023.
St. Louis added more minor-league depth at the position on Wednesday with the addition of Jose Alvarez when they took him in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 draft. Alvarez, 22, hit .279 with a .733 OPS as he rose from Class Low-A to Class AAA by season’s end within Houston’s system.
This past summer the Cardinals used a fourth-round pick during this year’s MLB draft on 21-year-old Jimmy Crooks III. Crooks ended the Class Low-A season with a .396 on-base percentage and a .468 slugging percentage in 23 games after making his MiLB debut this summer.