Willson Contreras Returns to Wrigley Field Amid a Cardinals Circus Unlike We’ve Seen in a Very Long Time
The fact that this Willson Contreras circus is happening right now, as the Cardinals come to Wrigley Field to face the Cubs, and is happening for the very reasons that the Cubs didn’t want to retain Contreras in the first place … it’s almost too much to wrap your head around at once. Especially when it’s the saintly Cardinals organization that seems to be blundering its way through every step of this process.
For those who missed the RAPIDLY EVOLVING news about Contreras and the Cardinals this weekend, it went something like this …
- The Cardinals have obviously been reeling from a rough start to the season, and probably wanted any kind of spark to turn things around. Everything is under the microscope right now, including the performance of their $87.5 million catcher signing, Willson Contreras. The Cubs had let Contreras walk because, although they appreciated his bat and his arm, they pretty clearly felt he wasn’t the right fit for what they wanted the catcher position to be (an almost singularly focused extension of the pitching staff). My sense of the chatter about Contreras as a catcher, leading up to this weekend, was vaguely negative in Cardinal circles, but not panicky.
- Adam Wainwright was set to return from the IL to make a start on Saturday. Instead of having their starting catcher go that day, the Cardinals called up a third catcher to start, Tres Barrera.
- That obviously set off alarm bells to everyone following the team – and apparently was a shock to Contreras, too – so the coaching staff hastily revealed a plan to take away catching duties from Contreras. Instead, Contreras would be DH’ing and playing in the outfield, where he hadn’t played in years and where the team was already crowded. Barrera would stay up to be the back-up catcher behind Andrew Knizer.
- Contreras didn’t seem to take well to the news, of course saying that he would do whatever he could to help the team. “I’m an employee,” Contreras said. “I know that my primary position is catching. If they want me to DH more, I can do nothing about it but be the best hitter I can be.” That word, “employee,” absolutely screams off the page, doesn’t it? From a guy who said very publicly this offseason that he was dreaming about being Yadier Molina’s replacement behind the plate, even as he was still sitting in the Cubs’ dugout; who suggested the Cardinals were the superior organization. Now he’s just an employee.
- Contreras’s manager, Oli Marmol, went out of his way to say that the decision wasn’t about the Cardinals blaming Contreras for any of the team’s failings … but he also went on to say this: “(Contreras) is an .800 OPS dude who is doing a really nice job of taking productive at-bats for us, and that’s going to continue. But we need to address the comfortability and confidence of our pitchers and we believe that familiarity behind the plate may help with that. … It allows for some familiarity behind the plate with our guys — which I think will help especially in the state that we’re in. At the end of the day, we need to start winning ballgames.” Pretty hard not to hear that as, You aren’t helping our pitchers perform well, so you’re out.
- AND THEN, you had Cardinals President John Mozeliak saying, wait, no, actually, Contreras won’t play in the outfield. He’s just a DH. Until and unless he isn’t. “We won’t have him in the outfield,” Mozeliak said Sunday during a phone call with The Athletic. “I know that came out yesterday, but after talking with him, it’s basically going to be more in the DH role right now. And there’s light at the end of the tunnel to get back behind the plate. I don’t anticipate (Contreras in the outfield) unless there’s some sort of emergency reason. Everything was moving quickly yesterday. A lot of things were getting out there. His hope is he gets a chance to get behind the plate. That’s what we’re going to work toward.” Everything was moving quickly on the day you had pre-planned to call up a third catcher to catch Adam Wainwright? And your manager didn’t even know how his erstwhile starting catcher was going to be used? Didn’t you guys actually, you know, TALK about any of this?
- As for why the Cardinals were booting Contreras from his job, Mozeliak told The Athletic, “Obviously the Cardinals were used to one guy 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 …. With this, we’ve noticed a lot of puzzling trends we know we need to fix. We know we need to address it. … 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 is a TON more in that Athletic piece from Mozeliak, all of which points to things very much not going how they’d hoped or expected in this new relationship.)
- As for that chance to get back to catching, it’ll take some amorphous improvement from Contreras on doing the VERY COMPLICATED things that the Cardinals do, which are TOTALLY UNLIKE any other organization because the Cardinals are SO SPECIAL:
So, we’ll see what happens now. We’ll see what happens this week at Wrigley Field, where Contreras figures to DH all three games, and will be playing with the combined rage of this slight from the Cardinals and the previous slight from the Cubs. If he gets into one, you can expect him to absolutely EXPLODE in the box and around the bases.
Longer-term, I have no idea what happens, because this is such a confusing mess.
The Cardinals believed that they could simply transform Contreras into the kind of catcher Yadier Molina crafted himself into over the course of two decades in the organization. Maybe they can, in time. But, right now, it reeks of organizational arrogance; the kind of thinking that happens when you start to buy into your own voodoo mystique, rather than continue the work that forces others to admit that it exists.
Again, maybe the Cardinals work with Contreras over the next several months (years?), and he becomes a starting catcher again. A good one. A guy who can marry the bat with the soft factors that have become so desirable, and that the Cubs couldn’t quite figure out how to coax out of him.
But bailing on that effort after just one month of a five-year deal, and then publicly shaming the guy for his inability to instantly be something he’s never been, wouldn’t give me a lot of confidence that they’ll pull it off.
It’s much more likely that Contreras becomes, eventually, a once-ish a week catcher, on a team that has to carry three catchers. His bat can still be very high quality for a DH, and if you utilize those catching starts thoughtfully, there’s still plenty of value there for the Cardinals. Not that I’m rooting for them to figure it out or for Willson to take out his rage this week against the Cubs.