The choice has always been beyond personal. Cardinals don’t usually spend big in free agency. They tend to get their stars in the trade. And for nearly two decades, they have benefited from the otherworldly defense of catcher.
So how did they settle on Wilson Contreras?
They fell in love during a job interview, just like that. The Cardinals, after meeting with Contreras, were determined to get him. Never mind that their biggest rival, the Cubs, wanted no part of bringing him back.
The conversation lasted about 3 and a half hours. Contreras, who was a free agent at the time, said all the right things to President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak and manager Ole Marmol. About the replacement of Yadir Molina. About wanting to play with the Cardinals. About improving every aspect of his game.
This was in early December. Mozeliac and Marmol flew from St. Louis to Orlando to meet with Contreras. Not long after, the Cardinals abandoned their efforts to trade for the A’s catcher Shaun Murphy, and signed Contreras to a five-year, $87.5 million contract.
“It was very clear,” Marmul said at spring training, “who’s got to be our guy.”
Thirty-five games into the season, it’s suddenly blurred. Contreras still says the right things. And most importantly, he seems to be doing the right things. But the Cardinals, after ignoring all the warning signs, are discovering why the Cubs’ efforts to retain him have been half-hearted at best. They are making Contreras a designated hitter, removing him as the starting catcher until further notice.
Mozeliak in an interview with the athlete On Sunday, he said he still believes in Contreras as a captain, “but some of the things we’re expecting, some of the things about the game that we’re used to, I think he realizes it’s going to take a little more preparation. The question now is, can that happen? I think we’ll have to figure it out.” that “.
Needless to say, the Braves don’t ask the same question of Murphy, a former Gold Glove winner who made a seamless defensive transition and did it as he switched leagues, rather than staying in the same division the way Contreras did.
The Cardinals aren’t the only team that demands a lot from their catchers. Almost all teams do this, including the Cubs. The Braves moved Contreras’ younger brother, William, to the three-team Murphy deal in part because they did not think he was ready to meet their expectations for the position. Well, the early returns are there. The Braves have the best record in the National League, and the Cardinals have the worst. And, for good measure, Murphy leads the NL in OPS.
A trade for Murphy, costly as if in talent, would have fit the Cardinal’s blueprint for success much better than signing Contreras. From Mark McGwire to Matt Holliday, Paul Goldschmidt to Nolan Arenado, the Cardinals have routinely hit the jackpot in star trades, then persuaded them to stay in St. Louis.
Murphy, with three years remaining in control of the club, would have been next in line. He was certainly open to an extension; He agreed to a six-year, $73 million deal with the Braves 15 days after his acquisition. But the Cardinals wouldn’t part with the young talent needed for Murphy or right-handed Pablo Lopez, who would bolster their rotation, a group that was initially inadequate and is now calling for help in Molina’s absence.
For Murphy, the A’s asked the Cardinals to hire outfielder Lars Nootbaar, Gold Glove winner Brendan Donovan and a tough young pitcher like Gordon Graceffo, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She later reports Nootbaar or Donovan wanted by A, as well as Graceffo. The Cardinals were unwilling to trade any of those players, and instead wanted to select two players from a group of four consisting of outfielder Dylan Carlson, second baseman Nolan Gorman, outfielder Alec Burleson and first baseman/outfielder Juan Yepez.
As it turns out, players Estori Ruiz, sidekicker Manny Peña, and prospects Kyle Mueller, Freddy Tarnock and Robert Salinas all ended up in favor of Murphy and reliever Joel Byamps. A deal that looked better in terms of quantity than quality, though, as Ruiz has league-adjusted OPS and leads the majors with 16 steals on 17 attempts.
Oh, and lest anyone forget, Contreras’ price tag wasn’t just $87.5 million. As a free agent who turned down a qualifying offer, he also cost the Cardinals talent, their second-highest pick in the 2023 draft, as well as $500,000 in international bonus pool space.
“Hindsight is 20-20,” Mozeliak said. “The types of players that we thought we’d have to give in to get Murphy, we just weren’t willing to do that. You might say, Are you willing to do that now? I don’t think that’s a really fair question.”
It was approved, but Contreras’ pivot was in doubt from the start. The Cubs, as I wrote in February, said goodbye to Contreras because he did not meet their standards for defensive readiness and calling games. Within the industry, concerns about Contreras being caught were no secret.
But once the Cardinals decided not to trade Murphy, they had almost no choice but to trade Molina through free agency. Alas, the open market has been the main concern for Mozeliak since he became chief executive officer of the team in October 2007 — yes, even more so than his ill-conceived spin-offs of players like Sandy Alcantara and Randy Arozarena.
The Cardinals are the envy of the industry for their ability to turn out young talent. They won more regular season games than all but the Dodgers and Yankees during Muzliak’s tenure, made 10 playoff appearances, won one World Series and appeared in another. But in free agency, it’s often a coincidence waiting to happen.
Cardinals errors under Mozliak include Dexter Fowler, Mike Lake, and Brett Cecil. Stephen Matz had a good showing Sunday, but his ERA since joining the Cardinals last season is 5.44. And now there’s Contreras, whose Cardinals fit the training wheels at the position he’s played since entering the major leagues in 2016 and winning a World Series in his first season with the Cubs.
Christian Vazquez, a powerful fullback who went to the Twins on a three-year, $30 million deal, was a safer, less expensive option.
“What I don’t want to happen is a finger point, it’s all Wilson’s fault,” Mozliak said. “There are many parts of our team right now that are not performing as we expected.
“I think the nuance is on the eye-catching side, we didn’t have to spend a lot of energy thinking about it because of what Yadi did for us. You know that saying, you feel sometimes you have a coach on the field? That was Yadi. That’s how we thought. Although Although you may have a game plan, Yadi has the potential to allow that to evolve during real-time decision making for the game.”
fair enough. Replacing Molina, an all-time great catcher and Hall of Famer almost certain, was always a problem. The 2022 Giants suffered a painful turnaround in their first season without Buster Posey. The 2012 Red Sox fell apart in their first year without Jason Varitek (and, uh, just one year under Bobby Valentine). But the Cardinals entered this season with other issues, adding to their challenge.
After veteran head coach Mike Maddox left for the Rangers, the Cardinals replaced him with their first major league pitching coach, Dusty Blake. They also rotated it the athleteTeam Eno Sarris and some in the industry were identified as a weakness, both before and after the season.
The additional complications introduced by the pitch clock, as cited by Mozeliak, is another reason the Cardinals would have been better off with a fine linebacker like Murphy rather than Contreras, even if the cost of the acquisition had reached the point of being overpaid.
“It’s tough coming from a different organization and learning everything. We have an internal strategy to help with that, which will start moving in that direction over the next several weeks,” Marmol told reporters on Saturday. Mozeliak made a similar statement on Sunday, saying, “It’s going to take some time to get him to where we feel he understands the expectations of this role for us.”
The insinuation that the Cardinals play chess while other clubs play checkers is the kind that infuriates rival executives. Contreras, too, does not like to hear such talk. He skipped the World Baseball Classic so he could learn the team’s staff. Despite all of his perceived shortcomings, no one questions his efforts.
And he is who he is. The Cardinals should have known him.
(Photo: Theron W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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