I wrote my first response to the controversial Willson Contreras decision earlier today. In this column I’ll cover other aspects of what it means to move Contrera from starting catcher to DH, plus other relevant notes.
1. Let’s start from the beginning. Contreras was given a five-year, $87.5 million because his offense would deliver a significant upgrade at the catcher position. And these catchers aren’t easy to find.
I’ve written this many times, but coming into the season Contreras had the highest OPS among MLB catchers since advancing to the majors in 2016, and that’s why the Cardinals pursued him.
The Contreras value will take a hit if he isn’t catching. Here’s why: the Cardinals already had one of finest designated hitter groups in the majors, ranking fourth overall in OPS (.859) at DH during the opening month.
By cramming Contreras into the DH cabinet — which already was a bit crowded but strong – the Cardinals have weakened their offense at the catcher position, which basically wipes out the purpose for paying all of that guaranteed money to Contreras.
Per OPS+, newly installed No. 1 catcher Andrew Knizner is 36 percent below league average offensively during his big-league career. And the new backup catcher, Tres Barrera, is 21% below league average offensively during his time in the majors. In 2021-2022 combined, Cardinal catchers were collectively 32 percent below league average offensively in OPS+. Looks like we’re headed back there eh?
2. This season Knizner has played well defensively, with small-sample statistics showing that he’s better than Contreras so far. But does that really justify what almost certainly will be a major offensive downgrade at catcher? As it is right now, even with better defense, the overall value at the STL catcher spot will decrease.
3. There will be fewer at-bats at DH for Nolan Gorman against right-handed pitching. I can’t believe the Cardinals are so dumb that they’d reduce Gorman’s role, but we’ll have to find out. This season Gorman has a.510 slugging percentage and is 36% above league average offensively per OPS+.
4. Gorman will have to play a lot more at second base, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Again, small sample. But per Fielding Bible, this season Brendan Donovan and Tommy Edman are a combined minus 5 in defensive runs saved at second base.
Gorman is minus 1 in 46 innings at 2B. All things considered, I think Gorman has done pretty well playing second base. Gorman’s hitting doesn’t suffer when he’s in the lineup at second base; he has a .677 slug and 1.010 OPS when manning the position. Marmol will have to find at-bats for Donovan at other positions. In moving one player (Contreras) it usually results in ripple effects for players at other positions.
5. With Contreras logging a large number of at-bats at DH, Marmol won’t have as many opportunities to put Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado at DH on occasion to give them a break from being on the field defensively. Since the start of last season, Goldy and Arenado have combined for 192 plate appearances at DH. Then again, Marmol could move Contreras aside (again!) to get those DH turns for Goldy, Arenado and others.
6. With Contreras at DH, guys like Donovan, Alec Burleson and Juan Yepez will likely be non-factors in the DH plan against right-handed pitching. Marmol remains smitten with Burleson, who has batted .152 with a .508 OPS in his last 15 games. So Marmol may keep running Burleson out there. Marmol and Mozeliak have taken their outfield logjam and moved it to designated hitter. This is also known as “going around in circles.”
7. By demoting Contreras so soon and not giving him a more extensive opportunity to get on the same page with the infantile pitchers who whined about him, what could this do to his mindset?
As Dayn Perry wrote at his excellent Cardinal-centric blog, Birdy Work:
“This is to say nothing of the optics of it all and how almost palpably deflated Contreras has sounded in response to the decision. A major free-agent acquisition and core contributor should not be resigned to saying things such as: ‘It’s tough, but I’m an employee. I know my primary position is catching, but if they want me to DH more, I can do nothing about it except by being the best hitter I can be.’ Such a player should certainly not be driven to those remarks 33 games into what one assumes and hopes will be a five-year tenure.”
8. The $87.5 million guaranteed contract was only one aspect of the Cardinals’ move for Contreras. According to Ken Rosenthal (Athletic), Contreras “also cost the Cardinals their second-highest selection in the 2023 draft – plus $500,000 in international bonus pool space.”
9. Mozeliak could have traded for Oakland catcher Sean Murphy, a better overall fit because of his offense-defense combination. Mozeliak has said he doesn’t buy into 20-20 hindsight. OK, that’s fine, but there’s one problem with this: Mozeliak already exercised 20-20 hindsight by demoting Contreras from his catching post. So if he can do this so brazenly, I’m pretty sure federal law allows fans and media to do the same.
According to Rosenthal, the A’s asked for Lars Nootbar, Brendan Donovan and pitching prospect Gordon Graceffo in exchange for Murphy. Mozeliak said no, and offered an alternative trade, giving the A’s the chance to take two players from a list of Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, Alec Burleson and Juan Yepez. Oakland rejected it.
Perhaps over time Mozeliak will be proven right here. But it’s also true that no one cares right now, especially after the team embarrassed itself by quitting on Contreras so soon.
10. No one cares right now because of what Murphy is doing for Atlanta. After being acquired from Oakland, Murphy leads the majors in WAR (2.1) and slugging percentage (.622) and is second in OPS (1.048.) Add to that nine homers, 28 RBI, a .426 onbase and a major-league leading OPS+ that’s 80 percent above average. Defensively Murphy is tied for for sixth among MLB catchers in defensive runs saved (+3.) Contreras is minus 3 in defensive runs saved. The Braves have the best record in the NL; the Cardinals have the worst record in the NL.
“The types of players we thought we’d have to give up to get Murphy, we just weren’t willing to do,” Mozeliak told Rosenthal. “You might say, would you be willing to do it now? I don’t think that’s truly a fair question.”
Sheesh. Many, many fans out there already know the answer to that question. And it’s a damn fair question. It might be a good time for Mozeliak to zip it for a time and lay low. The more he talks, the more he infuriates the team’s legion of paying customers.
11. The Cardinals can’t even get their stories straight. On Saturday, Marmol said Contreras would be used in left field. Gentlemen, can you please have a conversation and agree on correct messaging? Good grief.
12. Aren’t the front office and the manager committed to relying on advanced analytics? If so, the team’s analytics department should have casted a warning about Contreras’ supposed flaws as a catcher. If the analytics people didn’t raise warnings, then maybe Contreras is OK as long as you don’t compare his pitch-calling prowess to Yadier Molina. But if the analysts did raise those warnings – only to disregarded by the front office – then management was negligent.
13. Someone will have to explain why St. Louis pitchers are so addicted to Knizner. Last season “Kiz” was ranked No. 52 among 60 MLB catchers at framing pitches – and 53rd in strikes-called percentage. Contreras ranked better in both categories – but wasn’t as effective as Knizner at blocking pitches. And of course, Contreras has a career OPS+ that’s 50 points higher than Knizner’s. But the Cardinal pitchers need their binky and want it now and don’t have much interest in run support.
14. If Willson Contreras is so unworthy of calling pitches for a below-average set of pitchers, then Cardinal catching prospect Ivan Herrerra might as well ask for a trade. He’ll never catch here unless it’s a cameo experience.
15. Now that he’s done such a wonderful job of handling the situation at catcher, perhaps Mamol can make the effort to do something about his team’s deteriorating defense and baserunning. Then again, that would require taking responsibility instead of getting into a completely irrelevant and foolish mini-debate about fan-level frustration vs. team-level frustration. Oh, and maybe tell the pitchers that they’re being lazy and inattentive about holding runners on first base, which is grossly unfair to the catchers? Or will that suggestion be dismissed with a quick “catcher’s fault” dismissal?
16. At 11-24, this dysunctional franchise is beneath Paul Goldschmidt’s professionalism, class and dignity. Perhaps everyone involved in this self-created mess will try to emulate Goldy.
17. Yadier Molina ain’t coming back to manage the ballclub. He’s nobody’s puppet and never will be.
18. This is what we know about John Mozeliak so far in 2023: (A) he still can’t construct a starting-pitching rotation; (B) He refuses to take responsibility; (C) he still can’t be entrusted to make smart decisions on spending money on free-agents that go above $60 million or so. (D) Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. is devoutly loyal to Mozeliak and “Mo” is in no danger of losing his job. If anything here changes, I’ll get back to you.
19. This on the Contreras flogging from our friend Jay Jaffe, the superb baseball analyst at FanGraphs: “What in the world? This is jaw-dropping, panicky stuff coming from what was supposed to be a well-run organization.”
20. Do you think chairman DeWitt Jr. might be asking: “I spent $87.5 million for a catcher who isn’t catching. What?”
Thanks for reading …
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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.