Is Barrera now the favorite to back up Contreras?

March 21st, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- Whereas the Cardinals’ backup catching job behind franchise icon Yadier Molina was mostly an overlooked position for nearly two decades, that spot now is seen as more of a necessity than a luxury with the plans to keep new starter fresh and productive over the course of the long season.

With likely more opportunities than ever available for the backup catcher, manager Oliver Marmol has significantly higher expectations for the player who will fill the job behind Contreras. With less than a week remaining in Spring Training, the Cardinals haven’t decided between the incumbent, , or the newcomer, , but there is certainly a lean from the manager.

“[Barrera] has shown well during camp. If you are projecting what he is compared to [Knizner], they’re projecting them to be fairly similar,” said Marmol, whose Cardinals tied the Nationals, 4-4, on Tuesday. “One guy is performing well and the other hasn’t up to this point, but if we’re just modeling it out over time, they’re coming into camp similar.

“In this short period of time, Barrera has clearly outperformed Knizner -- I can’t disagree with that,” Marmol added. “We’ll look at more than just that, but it will play a role in the decision.”

When Molina retired following a 19-year career that could ultimately lead him to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Cardinals acted boldly in free agency by luring Contreras -- a three-time All-Star and a 2016 World Series champion -- away from the rival Cubs with a five-year, $87.5 million contract. Contreras has caught more than 117 games in a season just once in his seven-year career, and St. Louis plans to use him regularly at DH to keep his stellar bat in the lineup as much as possible.

Those increased opportunities have the Cardinals raising the bar on the expectations for their catchers behind Contreras. Last season -- when Molina struggled with a right knee injury, Knizner was wildly inconsistent and rookie Iván Herrera was demoted after a brief MLB promotion -- Cardinals catchers ranked 22nd in the Majors in batting average (.209), 26th in home runs (nine), 27th in RBIs (48) and 28th in OPS (.552).

That production should rise sharply when Contreras -- who is coming off consecutive 20-home run seasons -- is catching. However, the club expects more production from the backup, regardless of whether that’s Barrera or Knizner.

“I’d like some offense,” Marmol said bluntly. “I’d like there to be nine guys in the offense. So, yeah, our hope is that [offense at that position] starts to look better.”

Knizner, 28, has never hit higher than .250 in his four MLB seasons -- all with the Cardinals. Last season, he caught a career-high 90 games, but he batted just .215 with four home runs and 25 RBIs. He hit .280 in July and .303 in August, but he also slumped badly in June (5-for-48) and September (4-for-40).

Those struggles carried over to this spring. Knizner came into Tuesday’s game just 4-for-36 with eight strikeouts and two walks. That pain carried into the game when Nats right-hander Josiah Gray drilled Knizner just above his left knee in his first at-bat.

“You look at my season last year -- one bad month, two OK months and two really, really good months,” Knizner said recently. “I think the key for me is finding somewhere in between and not riding the highs and the lows. For me, it goes back to that consistency and matching the preparation and experience [with the production]. When I look back at my season last year, for two months I was one of the best hitting catchers in the game, and for another month I was probably the worst in the game. It’s just about finding that balance.”

If Knizner can’t find that balance over the final week of Spring Training, the backup job could go to the 28-year-old Barrera, a product of the University of Texas. Barerra, a sixth-round pick by the Nationals in the 2016 MLB Draft, made his big league debut in ‘19, but he has played just 51 MLB games since then. He had just nine hits in 50 at-bats in ‘22 with the Nats, but Marmol has been impressed with what he has seen from the 6-foot, 215-pound Barrera.

“Barrera is a quiet guy and a pro in everything he does -- from his early work to how he handles the pitchers to the conversations he has with guys while holding them accountable,” Marmol said of the catcher, who has a double and a home run this spring with six walks. “He’s actually done a really nice job. Offensively, he’s shown well and defensively he’s done a pretty good job."