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BenFred: Early winter meetings buzz surrounding catchers is proof Cardinals can't slow play biggest need

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Chicago Cubs vs St. Louis Cardinals

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras stretches for the ball and forces out the Cardinals' Edmundo Sosa at the plate in a game on Sunday, May 23, 2021, in St. Louis.

SAN DIEGO — Come home with the catcher.

Not a catcher.

The catcher.

This should be the clear goal for Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and his fellow decisionmakers at this week’s winter meetings.

Checking that box and more would be great, but Mozeliak and his lieutenants leaving their swanky San Diego hotel suite without finalizing the face behind the mask who will start the post Yadier Molina era could turn into a significant mistake.

Calls for urgency in early December are common but often silly. There are no games to be won before spring training. But this catcher situation is different, and the Cardinals have to know they can’t play this one both ways.

For years, the Cardinals have told us what future Hall of Famer Molina did for this team was bigger than anything that could be shown in the box score, and those of us who watched were quick to agree. Now that Molina has ridden off into retirement, the need for a commanding catcher does not disappear. It grows. Especially when you also are moving forward with an impressive but new pitching coach in recently promoted Dusty Blake.

Credentials are a must. Some been-there, done-that is a desperate need.

Athletics Astros Baseball

Oakland catcher Sean Murphy throws out Houston's Jeremy Pena in a game on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, in Houston.  

The Cardinals, to their credit, have admitted they are not well prepared to immediately fill the catching need from within with current options Andrew Knizner and Ivan Herrera. The baton pass Molina nailed when replacing Mike Matheny was not so seamless this time around. The baton was fumbled, and the Cardinals admitted from Day One of the offseason they need to add a player from the outside who picks it up and runs with it.

So, no need to wait. No need for the Cardinals to base their moves off other teams’ moves. No need for the Cardinals to backpedal themselves into that awkward and disappointing place where they potentially could have to follow up naming catcher as the tip-top of their offseason wish list only to wind up introducing a player the world knows was added as the outcome of a pivot to lower-tier options.

No one can replace Molina. No one needs to try to replace Molina. But you know what would make it a lot harder for the new guy, no matter who it becomes? If Cardinals fans know he was the second, third, or worse pick.

We have spent weeks debating which catchers we think should be option No. 1: free agent Willson Contreras, or fresh World Series champion Christian Vazquez? Trade for Sean Murphy of the Athletics or one of Toronto’s multiple options?

I still like Contreras. He has a Molina-like fire that can fuel teammates and singe opponents. His defensive shortcomings have been overblown. He has a strong arm and solid blocking skills. His pitch framing is not elite, but the art of pitch framing could be out as soon as 2024, if that’s when the automated strike zone arrives. Don’t be surprised if MLB commissioner Rob Manfred makes it so.

Contreras is a strong and proven catcher. And he hits. A Cardinals lineup that can use more protection for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado needs more guys who can hit. That Contreras is not a marathon style catcher like Molina doesn’t bother me. Those types are disappearing from the game, like it or not. Contreras’ bat could keep him in the lineup as a designated hitter on days reserved for continuing the development of Knizner and/or Herrera.

Something the Contreras critics should consider: The World Series champion Astros nearly dealt for him at this past season’s trade deadline, and they have reengaged with him this offseason despite Vazquez, who helped the Astros win a ring, being a free agent as well.

Catcher conversations dominated the early buzz here Sunday as the movers and shakers rolled into San Diego. Multiple teams are pushing for Gold Glove winner Murphy, and for good reason. He hits, too. Representation for Contreras has a check-in scheduled with the Cardinals, but other teams are in on him, too, including those bullying Astros, who wait for no one.

We all have our favorites. The more important thing is the Cardinals do, too. The front office has a leader in its clubhouse. The decision makers have a name most would list first if forced to put pen to paper. No need to share it. Just go get him.

Go get him via free agency or trade, and don’t risk another club muddying the waters more than they already have. Go get him so you can say your acquired answer was your first choice, and have that be the truth.

Outside of Jordan Walker, who could make this team out of spring training if he forces the front office’s hand in Grapefruit League action, and perhaps rising shortstop prospect Masyn Winn, there is no trade chip who should be off limits for the Cardinals to get their guy. They have plenty of money available for free-agent spending. Their self-imposed payroll is not a salary cap. It can flex as much as chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. allows. Don’t forget that. Handwringing about the penalties suffered by signing a free agent who turned down another team’s qualifying offer fades pretty fast if the acquired player performs upon arrival.

Wait-and-see mode so often is the Cardinals’ preferred winter meetings stance, but they have shifted out of it when a need is obvious. Urgency is required now.

Before Molina started setting Venezuelan managerial records for getting ejected from games, his best strength during a Cooperstown-worthy career was staying one step ahead, knowing what was coming and acting on it before anyone else could process the same information.

Molina is gone, diving into the next chapter of his baseball career, but the Cardinals need to pay one last tribute to him in this search for their next catcher.

If the position is as important to the Cardinals as they have insisted, and it is, the Cardinals need to leave San Diego having bagged one impressive backstop.

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