From Opening Day 2011 to Opening Day 2012, there are only two positions that we know will be the same, Yadier Molina at catcher and Matt Holliday in left field. Of course, saying that I’ve probably doomed them both to disastrous spring training injuries. (knock on wood)
For the 29-year-old Molina, 2011 was a big year. He led the Cardinals in batting average with his .305. For all intents, he had a career year. He set career highs in batting average (.305), slugging percentage (.465), runs (55), hits (145), doubles (32), home runs (14), and RBI (65) among others. He won his fourth consecutive Gold Glove and made his third consecutive All Star Game appearance. Picking up his $7 million option for 2012 was a no brainer for Cardinals management.
In my mind, Molina might be one of the most interesting players to watch this season. He is coming off a career year where he hit nearly double the home runs of his previous career high. Not only did he have home run power, he had gap power, notching 32 doubles as well, up from the 19 doubles he hit in 2010. For a man who is considered as slow as he is, that’s a high number, second on the Cardinals only to the other steady starter, Matt Holliday. That shows some potential that 2011 may end up being more than just a statistical fluke.
Another reason that I find Molina’s 2012 to be interesting is that his best friend on the team, Albert Pujols, has skipped town on his way to Anaheim to play for the Angels to the tune of $240 million over 10 years. How will he react after spending the previous 8 years of his career in Pujols’ shadow, will he step into the waiting spotlight or will he shy away from it?
You also have his impending contract situation, which I’ll address a little later.
Because of Molina’s defensive prowess and game calling reputation, any offense you get from the catcher position while he’s playing is a definite plus. It also means he logs a lot of innings behind the plate, 1150 innings in total last year across 137 games. Despite the fact that he logged 12 more innings in 2 more games than he did in 2010, he was used quite less than he had in previous years this season. If you remember, he was shut down for the final couple weeks of the season with knee issues at the end of 2010.
Despite those problems, Molina has been steady as a rock behind the plate for the Cardinals, notching over 1,000 innings behind the plate in 5 of the last 6 seasons. If the Cardinals are playing baseball, over the last 7 years the odds were pretty good that he was behind the plate as he’s proven himself exceptionally durable thus far.
For the Cardinals in 2012, there is no doubt that Yadier Molina goes in as the incumbent starter. The game is on, however, for the backup catcher role in 2012. Once held down by Jason LaRue and last year by Gerald Laird, the Cardinals under new manager Mike Matheny (to whom Molina was once a backup to) will be having an open competition for the roster spot. The guys who will be matched up in that battle will be Tony Cruz, Bryan Anderson, and free agent signee Koyie Hill.
Tony Cruz, 25, broke out when he got a chance to be the Cardinals backup catcher when Laird went down with a broken finger in May. While Laird was on the disabled list from May 23rd to July 5th, Cruz hit .278 with a .333 OBP over 18 games, 6 of which were starts behind the plate. His versatility was also used by the Cardinals as he made appearances during that time at third base and first base. Until 2009, Cruz had played primarily third base through the minor leagues, notching 130 games there before transitioning to catcher.
Bryan Anderson, 25, has toiled away in the Cardinals minor leagues since being drafted out of Arkansas in the 4th round of the 2005 draft. Since that time he’s played 593 games in the minor leagues and just 15 in St. Louis in 2010. Anderson has been the question mark since he was drafted. Before the 2008 season he was rated the #85 prospect in baseball by Baseball America, and that was after a fairly lackluster year in double-A Springfield. The power that many scouts talked about never developed in the minor leagues and he got off to an ice cold start in Memphis in 2011 while splitting time with Tony Cruz. However, once Cruz made the trip to St. Louis, Anderson regained his stroke and finished up the year with a hitting line of .281/.357/.409.
Despite having gained the approval of new manager Mike Matheny in previous years, which might gain him some favor in the battle for backup catcher, there are still pitchers on the Cardinals’ roster, namely Chris Carpenter and I’ve recently heard Kyle Lohse, who don’t like the way he handles things when he’s behind the plate. That could have a huge impact on the battle if you have two starters in your rotation who don’t like pitching to a particular catcher. However, you could jump him around the rotation to avoid him. He’s worked with Jaime Garcia before when they both played in the minor leagues together and because of his time there, he has caught most of the guys in the bullpen.
Regardless of what happens, Anderson might be happier that this could be his final season with the Cardinals’ organization. Despite solid performances, Anderson has topped out in Memphis the last four years and his trade value is virtually nil. But he now has 6 years of minor league service time, which means he’s a free agent after one more. The Cardinals do still hold one more option on him, so he can be sent back to Memphis without risk of losing him.
The Cardinals also surprised fans by bringing in veteran catcher Koyie Hill, seemingly against their previous statements of letting Anderson and Cruz fight it out for the spot. Hill has spent the last five years with the Cubs and hit .194/.268/.276 with 2 home runs last year in 46 games for the Cubs. He’s never been exceptionally notable at the plate, nor even behind it with a career -0.7 defensive WAR. The move doesn’t really make sense except as a veteran catching option should Molina go down with injury. He would be an exceptionally long shot, but you never know what might happen.
So who do I think will win the backup catcher job in St. Louis. Honestly, I feel it should be Bryan Anderson and just not because I’ve been very high on Anderson the last few years and hate that he hasn’t gotten an opportunity somewhere. The Cardinals will need to figure out where they are going with the catcher’s position beyond this year. Molina is in the option year of his contract and is very likely to command a near $10 million salary in this next deal.
Between the catchers that the Cardinals currently have in the organization, I see Tony Cruz with more of a long-term future with the team than Anderson does. Therefore, I think it’d be better for Cruz’s development to be playing everyday in Memphis than playing once a week in St. Louis. Anderson might get the role simply because Cruz has more of a future with the organization. It wouldn’t be the first time the Cardinals have done something like this. And if Carpenter and Lohse don’t like throwing to Anderson, you have three other starting pitchers who you can pair him with. Or tell them to suck it up.