Willson Contreras returns to Wrigley Field as a demoted catcher. After starting only 23 games at the position for the Cardinals, he’s been abruptly transferred to the DH spot. There are no set plans to move him back behind the plate in a starting role.
Contreras, who signed a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the Cardinals last offseason, has four-plus years to go on his deal. This is not an ideal beginning to his new deal in a new home.
Greetings, Willson! How much do you love being a Cardinal? How does it feel to have the honor of succeeding the retired icon Yadier Molina? How does it feel to be blamed for a terrible starting rotation and the team’s 11-24 record?
Cubs fans are smiling and laughing. You couldn’t blame Cubs president of baseball ops Jed Hoyer for chortling in his office, away from media. And as the Cardinals and Cubs renew their rivalry Monday night, Chicago has a 6 and ½ game over St. Louis in the NL Central standings.
What an embarrassment this must be for Contreras. The Cubs obviously disliked his defense and had no interest in re-signing him before he entered free agency.
So here we are on May 8, and the Cubs’ decision already has been validated. The Cubs were right about Contreras. We know this because the Cardinals deployed Contreras for only 625 innings at catcher before yanking the plug.
No one should be more embarrassed by this than St. Louis president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol.
Remember the stories about the big offseason meeting in Florida? It was a critically important job interview, with Mozeliak and Marmol questioning Contreras’ dedication to catching.
In his final season with the Cubs, Contreras made 36.4% of his plate appearances as a DH. The Cardinals were aware of this and told the job candidate they were seeking a full-time starting catcher and expected him to carry the load. Contreras provided the the enthusiastic and correct answer: he was all-in. And he let Mo and Marmol know how much he cherished the opportunity to succeed his idol, Molina.
The Cardinals and Contreras soon agreed to terms on the the largest free-agent contract in franchise history for a player who hadn’t been a member of the Cardinals.
This was a quick decision for a job hiring that had many complex parts to it. And the guys who engineered the deal were quick to move away from their decision to make Contreras their next starting catcher.
Did Mozeliak and Marmol conduct proper due diligence? Molina strongly endorsed Contreras as his successor. And the Cardinals had a conversation with longtime Cubs starter Jon Lester, who pitched for the Cardinals late in the 2021 season. Lester praised Contreras Was that sufficient?
I’m not sure, but I do know this: those recommendations from Molina and Lester didn’t mean a damn thing when Mozeliak-Marmol scurried to bail on Contreras with 80 percent of the regular season remaining.
This was a panic move, caused by the team’s horrendous start to the season. Instead of fully supporting Contreras and working extensively with him to improve his pitch-calling tendencies, the Cardinals sided with complaining pitchers that are doing their jobs poorly and wanted to put the blame on Contreras.
Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Steven Matz and Adam Wainwright have collectively pitched to a 5.97 ERA in 22 starts. And all of this is on Contreras? If that’s the case, then why does Jordan Montgomery have a 3.29 ERA this season? Contreras has caught Montgomery in five of his seven starts, and only one outing was bad.
After being bottle-fed by pitch-calling master Yadier Molina, Cardinal pitchers never developed a mind of their own. They evidently are incapable of thinking for themselves and needed Papa Molina to carry them through a game.
These victims didn’t approve of Contreras’ pitch selections and went to the manager and the president of baseball ops to with their “Where’s Papa” mewling. As a side note, the idea of Jack Flaherty squawking about Contreras is absolutely history. Ever look in the mirror, Jack?
Besides, this should have been an easy fix: call your own pitches, through Pitch.com. That’s what it’s there for. Or have the brilliant minds in the dugout signal the pitches in. And if the new pitch-clock format makes all of that more difficult, too bad. Other teams don’t seem to have a problem with it. A short list of starting pitchers that call their own pitches includes Shohei Ohtani, Max Fried, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer and Corbin Burnes. There are many more.
St. Louis pitchers were mentally and emotionally unprepared for the post-Molina era, but that isn’t Contreras’ fault. And instead of holding the pitchers accountable, Mozeliak and Marmol took them off the hook and gave the hurlers the respect they didn’t earn or deserve. Instead, Mozeliak-Marmol gave them the easy way out by scapegoating Contreras.
Contreras went about his new job the right way. He reported to training camp early. He declined to play in the WBC because he wanted to use that time to gel with the St. Louis pitchers – some of whom left camp to compete in the WBC. As requested by the Cardinals, Contreras put in extra work to get better at pitch framing – and he’s achieving that.
Then again, we can’t expect Mozeliak to rip the substandard starting rotation that he assembled. For Mozeliak to criticize the starting pitchers is the equivalent of Mozeliak criticizing himself and taking ownership of his failure.
And he’ll do nothing of the sort.
Remember Mozeliak’s words during a recent interview with Tom Ackerman on KMOX? Here you go:
“Again, I do not feel like the starting pitching is our reason we’re not having a better record right now,” Mozeliak said. “I think it’s a collection of a lot of things.”
That’s all you need to know about what’s going on here.
Just shovel the blame on Contreras.
Mozeliak doubled down when trying to explain the reason for the catching change in a conversation with Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.
“Obviously the Cardinals were used to (Molina) behind the plate for close to two decades. The nuances of that position, maybe very subtle, are what a lot of our pitchers were used to. What we were seeing was a lack of confidence.
“Normally, you would say, why didn’t you address this in Spring Training? But in Spring Training, it’s so different in terms of what people are trying to work on. Pitchers are going a couple of innings. It doesn’t really count. We just decided to do it head on, put it out there. Do we think we’ve seen Willson catch his last game? No. But this is going to take a little time to get him to where we feel he understands the expectations of what this role is for us.”
There he goes again, targeting Contreras.
Why would Mozeliak and the Cardinals expect a seamless transition to a new catcher when, as Mozeliak noted, the Cardinals were used to Molina behind the plate for 19 seasons and benefited from the “nuances” of the position?
The Cardinal pitchers were accustomed to all that Molina could do to benefit and enable them. Well, they need to get over it. Molina is gone, and you must adjust. You can’t expect to be bottle-fed and nursed by Molina, so accept the new reality and work hard for the new catcher instead of whining. And for Mozeliak and Marmol to capitulate to this is a default of leadership. If these pitchers are so mentally weak, then you need new pitchers who weren’t addicted to Molina. He ain’t coming back, OK? Do your jobs.
For Mozeliak — the executive in charge of putting the rotation together — it’s easier to scapegoat Contreras. Mozeliak’s meek effort to deflect criticism of his own subpar job performance only reaffirms the belief that he knows he’s made a mess of things but can’t admit it. Marmol and his chosen pitching coach (Dusty Blake) have shown that they don’t know what to do about running a pitching staff. No problem! Blame it on Contreras!
We already knew that Molina was a superior pitch-caller, arguably the best of his time. We all agree of his extraordinary importance to the franchise. We all agree that Molina’s handling of the pitching staff was exquisite, essential and extremely valuable.
There was only one Yadier Molina. So why would anyone – especially members of Cardinal management and the players? – expect Contreras to snap into place and become Instant Yadi? No one can do that. Not this soon. And you can’t expect Contreras to shine right away when there were so many questions raised about catching work for the Cubs? Molina was uniquely special, and you can’t expect a newcomer to be on Molina’s planet in something as crucial as pitch selection. That takes time. A lot of time.
The Cardinals should have known what they were getting. From the time Contreras was promoted to the majors, the Cardinals and Cubs played 115 regular-season games against each other before Contreras became a free agent.
The Cardinals had plenty of time to scout Contreras and make notes on his defensive shortcomings. They could have done some behind-the-scenes digging to gain insight into the quality of his pitch-calling skills.
The Cardinals chose Contreras as the catcher to inherit Molina’s vacated position.
The Cardinals knew in advance that he wasn’t Molina defensively, but had no problem investing nearly $90 million in Contreras to become Instant Yadi.
And once the season began, Mozeliak-Marmol freaked out after realizing Contreras wasn’t Instant Yadi.
I mean, how is that sequence even possible? This episode explains much of why the Cardinals are tied for their third-worst winning percentage after 35 games (.312) since 1901.
Through their actions, Mozeliak-Marmol told us they believe Contreras is almost solely responsible for the dreary performance of the pitching staff. And that’s one of the biggest loads of bull ever offered to Cardinal fans, hoping they’d fall for it. They haven’t.
Mozeliak and Marmol both insisting that the pitching problems weren’t all on Contreras. Except that they’ve made it all about Contreras. Which also means they’ve been fibbing.
Moz-Marmol wanted their struggling pitching staff to have “more familiarity” at the catcher position by using Andrew Knizner there. OK, so why did the overwhelmed manager replace Knizner in extra innings Saturday and leave Tres Barrera to handle the STL staff for the first time in major-league play?
And if the Mozeliak-Marmol want “familiarity” behind the plate, and want us to believe they’ll put Contreras behind the plate again anytime soon — then how the hell does that work when Contreras isn’t catching?
Mozeliak already is hedging on his large financial investment in Contreras. Though it’s awfully early, Mozeliak could be adding another mistake to add to his terrible history of misspending on sizable free-agent contracts.
This is baseball, and all contracts are guaranteed. You can’t buy Molina’s successor for $87.5 million and then take him back to the store for a full refund after he makes catches 625 innings.
The Cardinals knew what they were buying.
And they knew they were buying in for the next five seasons.
And they made the purchase, anyway.
And now they have the gall to blame Contreras?
Note: I’ll have another column ready for you soon; it’s about the real and potential repercussions — plus notes — about the Cardinals’ decision to move Contreras.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
Listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast on the Cardinals, featuring Will Leitch and Miklasz. It’s available on your preferred podcast platform. Or follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link. We have a fresh “Seeing Red” online today and it’s all about the Contreras move.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, Bill James Online and Baseball Prospectus.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.