Willson Contreras is a Cardinal, taking over at catcher for his friend and future Hall of Famer Yadier Molina.
According to multiple media reports, the Cardinals sealed the deal with a five-year contract for $87.5 million. That computes to an average annual salary of $17.5 million.
Contreras turns 31 in May. He’ll be in his age 35 season during the final year of the contract in 2027.
Here’s a Stream of Consciousness reaction to the signing:
1) Credit goes to chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak for making an important investment. I feared that the Cardinals would do the easy and safest thing by settling for a less expensive free-agent option such as Christian Vazquez. But the Cardinals decided to pay a premium by signing a catcher that will provide a substantial upgrade offensively at the catcher spot. And to make it happen, the Cards were willing to stretch the contract length to five years.
2) Over the past two seasons STL catchers slugged .315 … Contreras slugged .452.
3) Over the past two seasons, STL catchers had a .594 OPS … Contreras had a .797 OPS.
4) Using park and league adjusted runs created (wRC), Cards catchers were 32 percent below league average offensively over the past two seasons … Contreras was 21 percent above league average offensively over the last two years.
5) St. Louis catchers’ WAR (FanGraphs) over the last two seasons: a horrendous minus 0.6, which was below the replacement level and the worst in baseball.
6) Contreras had 5.6 WAR over the last two seasons which ranked fourth among regular MLB catchers.
7) Looking at those numbers … Yeah, let’s say it again: the Cardinals wisely purchased a lot more production to strengthen their weakest area offensively.
8) Let’s talk about consistency. Contreras was the best, biggest and most consistent bat on the catcher free-agent market. Since he arrived in the majors with the Cubs in 2016, here’s where Contreras ranks among catchers that had at least 1,500 plate appearances between 2016-2022:
1st in OPS, .808
3rd in OPS+, 114
3rd in total bases
3rd in extra-base hits
4th in slugging, .459
5th in homers, 117
5th in doubles
6th in RBI, 365
9) And in the metrics since 2016: Second to J.T. Realmuto with 20.8 WAR, per Baseball Reference. Second to Realmuto in Wins Above Average. Second to Realmuto in Offensive WAR. And fifth in Defensive WAR.
10) Contreras has been maligned defensively, but the criticism is based on exaggerated claims. I’m not saying that Contreras is well above average, but he’s average in most areas. He was signed for his offense, but isn’t a significant liability on defense. We’ll have to wait and see about his pitch-calling acumen, but I also believe he’ll improve in St. Louis. For the most part the Cardinals know what they’re doing with pitchers, but it would be foolish to expect Contreras to match Molina for catching wizardry. Yadi retired. It’s time to get over it.
11) Contreras was +8 in Defensive Runs Saved in 2021, and slipped to minus 1 DRS in 2022. He’s been above average, or exactly average, in five of his seven seasons. And he’s never been worse than minus 1 in DRS in a season. Contreras isn’t great … but he isn’t close to being as bad as you’ve been led to believe.
12) Contreras has been slammed for his pitch framing. Again, it isn’t the most stellar part of his profile. But here’s something you probably didn’t know: he’s improved. He was awful from 2017 through 2019, with a terrible minus 16 in Catcher Framing Runs (per Statcast.) But since the start of the 2020 season, he’s a plus 2 in framing runs and wasn’t below average in any of the three seasons.
13) What about pop time? Contreras had an above-average pop time on attempted steals of second base, ranking 11th among catchers. And he had an above-average pop time on attempted steals of third base, ranking 5th among catchers.
14) Contreras has a career caught-stealing rate of 31 percent … which is better than the overall MLB average of 26% since 2016. And in 2022, Baseball Prospectus rated him No. 1 among catchers in takeoff rate – which means he was the best, at least statistically, at suppressing the number of steal attempts against a regular catcher.
15) An overview of Contreras and defense by Ben Clemens of FanGraphs, who put Contreras at No. 10 on his list of the Top 50 free-agent talents:
“Will teams bidding for Conteras’ services want him behind the plate? I think many won’t, but I’m not sure it matters. His bat comfortably plays at DH, and he’s spry enough even after years of squatting that I bet he could play a credible outfield corner if necessary. He could also continue to catch. While he’s not a great receiver, he’s always controlled the running game well, which will be important next year given the new pickoff rules. I’m not sure how suitors will deploy Contreras, but maybe it doesn’t matter. He’s going to hit a lot. Where he ends up defensively is far less important than all that offensive value he’ll create.”
16) Here’s an assessment from Keith Law of The Athletic, who listed Contreras at No. 6 in his rankings of the Top 50 free agents:
“Contreras is the only surefire everyday catcher available as a free agent this winter, considering both performance and durability; only J.T. Realmuto has caught more games since the start of 2018, when Contreras became a regular. He’s an athletic catcher with a strong arm, but is a below-average framer and always has been, which is still sort of a thing in the short term (although we can always hope for change). At the plate, he makes extremely hard contact with a very aggressive approach that brings a lot of swing and miss, even in the zone in the upper third along with a propensity to chase down and away. His OBPs have stayed above-average thanks to his apparent desire to stand in the way of the pitch, with 24 HBPs in 2022 (which, somehow, did not lead the league?) and more than one HBP every 10 games in his career, so I guess we could call it a skill at this point. There may be some teams scared off by the framing, but Contreras provides plenty of value with his bat and even his arm, and it’s a big dropoff from him to the next-best catcher in this free agent class.”
17) Law is correct; Contreras is a Statcast Star. In 2022 Contreras was among the top 10 percent of MLB hitters in hard-hit rate, was in the top 23 percent in average exit velocity, was in the top six percent in expected onbase percentage, and was in the top 15 percent in expected slugging percentage.
18) In addition to catching 626 games for the Cubs, Contreras served as a DH in 58 games (39 times last season), played in 35 games as a left fielder, and played in 11 games at first base.
19) The catcher workload isn’t as heavy as it used to be. Managers give their catchers more rest to reduce wear and tear and injury risk. But over the past five seasons Contreras ranks 5th in games caught, 4th in games started, and 4th for most innings caught. Even though the Cubs have eased the strain on Contreras by using him a little more often at DH, since the start of 2020 he ranks 12th in games caught, 9th in starts and 11th in innings. The way some Cardinal fans are carrying on, you’d think that Contreras was catching about 25 games per season for the Cubs.
20) Contreras will have to get comfortable at Busch Stadium. He hasn’t hit for much power in his new baseball home, slugging .378 with four homers in 127 at-bats. But let’s take a closer look at that. The Cardinals obviously pitched carefully to Contreras, and tried to avoid him when possible. I say that for a reason: as a Cub at Busch Stadium, he was walked or hit by a pitch in nearly 15 percent of his plate appearances.
21) Contreras plays with a sharp edge. He’s ultra competitive. He doesn’t take any mess. He has a fiery personality. This is a healthy addition for the Cardinals, who have too many nice guys. That’s another thing about Contreras replacing Molina that works very well for me; both of these dudes are relentless … ruthless. Contreras reveres Molina and that (plus the money!) had to figure in his decision to sign on in St. Louis. And when asked for a recommendation by Mozeliak, Molina advised the Cardinals to go for Contreras.
22) Sean Murphy was my top choice to succeed Molina. But I don’t know what the A’s wanted for him in a trade, and at least the Cardinals still have all of their prospects in hand as potential trade pieces. There’s a lot to be said for that. I wanted Murphy or Contreras and would have been happy either way. This was an aggressive, necessary move by the Cardinals, and they’re a better team with Contreras in the lineup.
23) That said, the Cardinals can’t stop now.
24) We can talk about this in an upcoming column, but management must seek additional improvements.
25) Welcome to St. Louis, Willson Contreras. You were called on to begin a New Era in St. Louis catching by succeeding a legend, and that’s the highest compliment the Cardinals could give you.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical 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.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
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.