AS OTHERS SEE US

Here’s a wide-ranging sampling of opinions on the Cardinals’ free-agent signing of erstwhile Cubs catcher Willson Contreras at a cost of $87.5 million over five seasons …

Michael Baumann, FanGraphs: “When a catcher comes along who can hit — like, really hit — that’s a rare thing. Even if the defense isn’t ideal, a catcher with a dangerous bat is worth, well, let’s ask the St. Louis Cardinals. Turns out they think it’s worth the five years and $87.5 million they just gave Willson Contreras.

“Even though he turned 30 this past season, Contreras’ bat looks as sprightly as ever … the guys around Contreras on most of these (statistical) leaderboards are among the best catchers in baseball, and represent a type of player who’s extraordinarily difficult to acquire.”

(Except for a strong arm, Baumann doesn’t think much of Contreras defensively but doesn’t seem to care all that much given the impact Contreras will make  offensively for St. Louis at the catcher spot.

“All of which is a long way of saying: The Cardinals had a giant hole at catcher, and they filled it with the best option on the free agent market by far,” Baumann wrote. “In so doing, they made their lineup much deeper — thus shoring up a key weakness for a potential playoff push — and managed to tweak the Cubs by stealing their arch rival’s best player. That’s a pretty good day’s work.”

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Dayn Perry, CBS Sports: “It’s close to an ideal fit for St. Louis. No, Contreras isn’t the defender that Yadier Molina was, particularly when it comes to pitch framing. However, Contreras’ framing skills have improved over the last handful of seasons, and he’s got an excellent arm. Most of all, Contreras directly addresses the galling lack of production the Cardinals’ suffered last season. Contreras is a career .256/.349/.466 hitter with elite quality-of-contact numbers, especially by positional standards. He’s also coming off a 2022 campaign in which he put up a career-best OPS+ of 128 and backed it up at the level of the batted ball. Contreras is going to be a massive upgrade over the status quo with the bat.

“As for the presumed framing drop-off, the likely arrival of automated ball-strike calls at the MLB level, possibly in time for the 2024 season, make that much less of a long-term worry. The presence of the universal DH also provides a way to keep Contreras’ bat in the lineup while giving him some rest, and the DH is also a potential landing spot for him on the back half of this contract as he moves into his mid-thirties.”

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David Schoenfield, ESPN: “Contreras is one of the best hitting catchers in the game. He has consistently produced elite hard-hit rates, ranking in the 86th percentile or higher each of the past three seasons. He’s not a hitter who gets cheated on his swings, that’s for sure — and while he’s not a high-average hitter, Contreras draws some walks and his high rate of getting hit (24 times in 2022) has helped him to produce above-average OBPs throughout his career. He’ll be entering his age-31 season, but his offensive game has remained stable and shows no signs of decline — he even had a career low strikeout rate in 2022. I like the chances for Contreras to maintain this level of offense for a few more seasons.

Now the hitch: His defense. No, he’s not Molina, but consider that president of baseball operations John Mozeliak had talked earlier this offseason about how important catcher defense has been for St. Louis’ franchise. It would seem that the Cardinals are comfortable enough with Contreras and his ability to work with a staff to give him this five-year deal. His arm strength is solid (and he loves the back pick to first base, throwing there more often than any other catcher) and according to Statcast metrics, his catcher framing was a net zero runs in 2022 — not much worse than Molina’s plus-five runs saved in about the same number of innings. And even if you’re concerned about Contreras’ pitch framing, that might go away in a couple of years if the robot umps come in.

“The best part: All it cost the Cardinals was money. Instead of trading, say, Nolan Gorman for Sean Murphy, they retain all their young players and prospects … This lengthens a lineup that was third in the National League in runs scored. While you can expect some regression from MVP Paul Goldschmidt and they’ll miss what Albert Pujols provided, the Cardinals will be much better at catcher, can look forward to perhaps a 30-homer season from Nolan Gorman, and hope for a bounce-back from Tyler O’Neill — and perhaps the arrival of Jordan Walker, considered by most the best hitting prospect in the minors. It’s a strong offense with depth and positional versatility.

“Given what some of the starting pitchers have gone for (in the free-agent market,, I think the Cardinals found a good way to improve three to four wins without losing anything — without the same injury risk that comes with pitchers. I like this move ending up as one of the best of the offseason when you factor in value, need and cost.”

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R.J. Anderson, CBS Sports, who wrote this before the signing: “The (defensive) book on Contreras remains largely the same, but this winter may prompt the printing of a new afterword depending on his next contract. He’s still one of the best hitting catchers in the business. He reaffirmed as much with a big season that saw him slice into his strikeout rate while launching 22 home runs in 113 games. Contreras is still backpick-obsessed behind the plate, too, as he gleefully threw behind runners 48 times last season, or more than the second- and third-place finishers combined. And yes, he’s still a substandard framer, albeit better than he used to be. The last part is crucial since teams put a lot of weight in framing, and justifiably so. How many clubs will overlook Contreras’ deficiencies in that area to add him to their lineup?”

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Jordan Shusterman, Fox Sports: “It’s not just that the Cardinals are filling the shoes of a franchise legend in Molina with a player whom their fan base has been rooting against for the past half-decade as one of the faces of the rival Chicago Cubs. Contreras also represents a significant departure stylistically from the kind of player Molina was, especially in the latter part of his career.

“Since debuting in 2016, Contreras has been the most consistently productive hitter at the catching position this side of JT Realmuto. Contreras’ 128 OPS+ in 2022 was a career-best, and a mark Molina last reached back in 2013.

“Signing Contreras doesn’t just address an obvious positional need, it also adds legitimate thump to a lineup that lacked depth beyond the MVP-caliber seasons of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and the remarkable last hurrah of Albert Pujols.

“Defensively, reviews of Contreras have been mixed over the years. His receiving, framing and blocking have fluctuated from below-average to solid, while his best asset behind the dish is a strong arm and quick release. It’d be unfair to expect any catcher tasked with following Molina to live up to his legendary reputation as one of the great field generals in baseball history.

“Still, Contreras is an excellent athlete for his position and there’s no reason to think he can’t improve at some of the more subtle elements of catching with his new team. Though Molina may be retired, the standard and example he set in terms of game-planning and in-game adjustments may serve as a useful template for Contreras to lean on in any efforts to improve his defensive chops.

“Ultimately, St. Louis decided Contreras’ offensive impact comfortably offset any questions moving forward about his abilities behind the plate, making him the best way to address the most obvious hole on the roster. A longtime Cub in Cardinals threads may take some getting used to, but we won’t have to start thinking about that until spring training.”

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Responding to a question on the ESPN site – what was your favorite move of the winter meetings, aside from Judge’s contract? baseball writers Bradford Doolittle and Jesse Rodgers chose Contreras to the Cardinals.

“The Cardinals had to get a starting catcher and I love that they went the free agent route to find a worthy successor to Yadier Molina,” Doolittle wrote. “Willson Contreras has different strengths from Molina, but his individual winning percentage through age 30 (.517) is actually better than Molina’s was at the same age (.512). He isn’t the defender Molina was — few catchers are or have been — but he’s at least league average by the metric and his bat is a big upgrade. Contreras’ competitiveness will also help replace some of Molina’s omnipresent intensity. The Cardinals haven’t had to worry about catching for a long, long time and now they won’t have to for another half-decade at least.”

Jesse Rogers: “Oh, it’s definitely Contreras leaving the Chicago Cubs for their archrivals in St. Louis. After he spent 14 years in the organization, the Cubs didn’t make him a single offer this offseason while St. Louis made him rich. They believed in him, and now the Cubs are searching for his replacement. It’ll make for not only some juicy head-to-head matchups over the next five years, but also a motivated player. Fans will undoubtedly have mixed emotions seeing him wear red instead of blue, though time will tell which team got it right.”

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Keith Law, The Athletic: “Contreras is a bat-first catcher, which is a big shift from Yadier Molina, whose value over the past nine years has almost all been in his glove — he had just one above-average season at the plate during that span. Contreras was one of the best offensive catchers in baseball last year, ranking only behind Adley Rutschman and Willson’s own brother, William, in wRC+ (minimum 300 PA). He makes a lot of very hard contact, ranking third among catchers in hard-hit percentage and posting the single highest exit velocity for any catcher last year at 116.2 mph, which helps make up for his high swing-and-miss rates.

“He’s also reasonably patient for a catcher, and gets hit by a lot of pitches; over the last five years, his OBP has been a full 50 points higher than Molina’s. He’s not the framer Yadier was, or the receiver, and we could probably argue all day about what Molina’s game-calling was worth, but what we can measure says the Cardinals just added between three and 3.5 wins with one signing, which, at this AAV, seems like a great deal — one the Cubs probably should have matched.

“There’s some age risk here, as catching is a brutal position, of course, and one of Yadi’s most valuable traits was his ability to carry such a high workload right up until his final season — he caught at least 110 games in his age-34, 35, 36, and 38 seasons, missing age 37 because of the pandemic. The Contreras deal only takes him through age 35, and it’s not that uncommon for catchers to still catch regularly through that age, but he also offers a bit of an out because his bat is valuable enough to play somewhere else. If he’s a part-time catcher and part-time DH in the last year of his deal, he will probably still be worth the roster spot and has a reasonable chance to produce enough to justify the salary.

“I’m a little surprised this is all he got (contract size), because he’s a very good, very athletic player, and he was by far the best catching option available in free agency.”

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Zach Kram, The Ringer: “Willson Contreras is an ideal puzzle piece as he switches sides in the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry via a five-year, $87.5 million deal. Contreras is almost the inverse of late-stage Yadier Molina, who was renowned for his defense but hit .214/.233/.302 in his last season before retiring; Contreras, conversely, has always had a questionable glove but offers tremendous offensive production for a catcher. Since Contreras debuted in 2016, Will Smith is the only catcher who’s hit significantly better than the newest Cardinals backstop. And if robo umps arrive at some point during Contreras’s five-year tenure in St. Louis, as is likely, his defensive demerits may no longer matter. The 30-year-old was a shrewd pickup for the Cardinals.”

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Gabe Lacques, USA Today: “Contreras, 30, debuted during that 2016 season in which the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years, and remained a bedrock of the club even as fellow All-Stars Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez departed via trade as the Cubs opted not to even try retaining any of them.

“Now, Contreras will journey south down I-55 to St. Louis, where Molina has held down the catching spot since 2004. Molina accomplished a few things in that span: Two World Series championships, 10 All-Star Game appearances and nine Gold Glove Awards before retiring alongside fellow Cardinals icon Albert Pujols in October.

“Yet the Cardinals are hardly putting a slouch behind the dish. Contreras has a lifetime .808 OPS and produced one of his best marks – .815, with 22 homers – last season. While not as highly regarded defensively as Molina, who turned 40 this year, Contreras makes the Cardinals younger and more offensively viable. He also gives them another strong, albeit also right-handed, bat to slot near the middle of the Cardinals order, where NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt and All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado reside.”

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Chris Ciwik, Yahoo Sports: “This move should help ensure that the Cardinals remain a force in the NL Central. The team won the division in 2022 thanks to excellent performances from Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado at the plate. Franchise legend Albert Pujols also helped in a big way, clubbing 24 home runs during a surprising comeback season. Adding Contreras, one of the league’s top catchers, should ensure that St. Louis’ offense stays strong. However, the rotation might need another arm, especially after Jose Quintana signed a two-year deal with the New York Mets on Wednesday.

“Even without other additions, the Cardinals should be considered strong contenders in the NL Central in 2023. The Milwaukee Brewers, the Cardinals’ biggest competition the past couple of seasons, have sent signals that the team is retooling. Meanwhile, the Cubs have made some bold moves after finishing 74-88.

“That could set up a scenario in which Contreras once again finds himself in the middle of a division race between the Cardinals and Cubs. This time, though, he’ll be on the opposite side of the rivalry.”

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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.

Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz

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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.

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

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.