Willson Contreras

May 6, 2023: Cardinals announce that Willson Contreras is changing positions

Less than six months after they signed him to a five-year, $87.5 million contract to replace Yadier Molina as the franchise’s starting catcher, the Cardinals stunned everyone by announcing that Willson Contreras was changing positions.

The move came just 23 starts into Contreras’s tenure as the team’s catcher. With Contreras batting third and serving as the designated hitter on the day of the club’s announcement, the Cardinals fell 6-5 to the Tigers in 10 innings, extending their losing streak to eight games and dropping them to a National League-worst 10-24 record.

“One thing I want to make super clear, we are not losing ball games because of Willson Contreras,” manager Oliver Marmol said. “This is a guy that’s putting in an amazing amount of work to be able to … become more familiar with our pitches, but also how we do things.”[1]

The Cardinals were clearly finding wins difficult to come by in their first season since Molina’s retirement. Following the retirement of the 10-time all-star and nine-time Gold Glove Award winner, the Cardinals made clear that their top offseason priority was to sign a starting catcher. That search led them to Contreras, whose contract represented the largest free-agent deal given by the Cardinals to a player from outside their organization.

While Contreras had earned three previous all-star nods behind the strength of his offense, he appeared committed to meeting the Cardinals’ defensive expectations. Even as Cardinals pitchers such as Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright left spring training to play in the World Baseball Classic, Contreras declined the opportunity to play for his native Venezuela so he could work with his new teammates.

Reports from spring training also indicated that Contreras was making adjustments at the team’s request, including changes to his hand positioning as he received the ball and setting up closer to the plate. At the time he was removed from the position, FanGraphs.com stats showed that he had 2.8 defensive wins above replacement to that point in the season, good for sixth in the majors.[2]

In the days before the Cardinals’ announcement, Contreras even set up a video call with Molina to discuss how he could help the Cardinals’ pitching staff turn around its early-season struggles.

“He told me to trust my game, trust my feelings, and call pitches with a reason,” Contreras said. “I take the losses personally because I came here to win.”[3]

Nonetheless, the decision to move Contreras out from behind the plate was made after discussions between Contreras, Marmol, and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak.[4] The same day they announced Contreras’s new role, the Cardinals called up Tres Barrera from Triple-A to back up Andrew Knizner.

“It’s tough. It’s tough,” Contreras said. “Like I said, I’m an employee and I know that my primary position is catcher. If they want me to DH more, I can do nothing about it but be the best hitter I can be.”[5]

In the days following the Cardinals’ announcement, it became clear that Contreras’s situation was fluid. Though the team initially indicated that Contreras would see time at both designated hitter and as a corner outfielder, Mozeliak walked that back in an interview with The Athletic.

“We won’t have him in the outfield,” he said. “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.”[6]

The idea that Contreras could return to catching duties also represented a change. Just one day earlier, when asked whether the Cardinals hoped to return Contreras behind the plate, Marmol said, “Not necessarily.”[7]

As the Cardinals sought to clarify their plans moving forward, they faced criticism from local and national pundits.

“If you are chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., how can you not be wondering how the biggest free-agent contract ever given to a player from outside the organization has reached such a precipitous place so soon?” St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson wrote. “Sorry, but I don’t like it. It feels panicked for a team that keeps saying no one should panic, and too heavily based on the opinions of pitchers who just may not be good enough. It feels unfair to Contreras, like blame is being shoveled toward the new face in the clubhouse.”[8]

Contreras’s former manager with the Cubs, Joe Maddon, was equally perplexed.

“He caught a World Series team and did it really well,” Maddon told the MLB Network. “It’s about conversation. I don’t know what is behind this particular move. I know they’re missing Yadier. I understand that. However, Willson is good. He’s real good. He listens. He’s very coachable. … To just bump him out of that role right now after being signed like he has, I just don’t get all that, but I don’t have all the information. I think Willson is very good. I’ve argued on his behalf in the past. There’s no reason to believe he’s not going to catch that team well.”[9]

Even as the Cardinals attempted to convince the public that they weren’t blaming Contreras for their struggles, they had to admit that a team that entered the season with postseason aspirations was off to one of the worst starts in baseball. In fact, only Oakland and Kansas City had worse records at the time of Contreras’s position change.

“You’ve got to have confidence with people in certain roles, that’s what it comes down to,” Mozeliak said. “We’ll be patient, but look, again, this has not gone how we would have thought. You’ve got to remind yourself it’s a long season, but it’s certainly gotten off on the wrong foot. … I do (still believe in Contreras). But some of the things we expect, some of the things about the game we’ve become accustomed to, I think he realizes it’s going to require more preparation. Now the question is, can that happen? I guess we’ll have to find out.”[10]

After the Cardinals snapped their eight-game losing streak with a 12-6 win over the Tigers on May 7, Contreras met with starting pitchers Jack Flaherty and Wainwright, who both told him that they looked forward to him returning behind the plate.

“No catcher in the history of the game has thrown the pitch and caught it too,” Wainwright said. “I definitely think you’re going to see Willson and our pitching staff settle in and be great moving forward. I really do believe that.”[11]

It was a challenge Contreras was eager to accept.

“This is the team I chose, and I chose this team for a reason,” Contreras said. “We have the talent to compete and get back to where we need to be. I’m still here. I know they made a decision. That won’t change who I am. That won’t change how I give my best to help this team win. It takes time. I know I can catch. You can get frustrated about it, or you can work. If you watch from a different perspective it’s going to take a little time, but I’m the catcher of this organization.”[12]

Throughout the next week, which included a road trip to play Contreras’s former team, the Cubs, he served as the Cardinals’ designated hitter. In the opener at Wrigley Field, Conteras drove in a pair of runs and scored another in a 3-1 victory. Two days later, he added an RBI single in a 10-4 loss.

On Friday, May 12, Marmol declined to give a timetable for when Contreras might return to the catching position, or to give specifics on the areas in he was working on.

“We’re making progress every day and sticking to our plan of getting him back to the point where we get him back there,” Marmol said.[13]

The following day, however, Marmol announced that Conteras would be behind the plate to catch Flaherty when the Cardinals opened their series against the Brewers on Monday, May 15. In total, Conteras’s removal from the position had lasted just over a week.

“We have felt really good about the progress that we’ve made, and it lines up really well for him to catch on Monday with Jack on the mound,” Marmol said.[14]

The Cardinals won the game 18-1 as Flaherty struck out 10 batters over seven shutout innings.

Unfortunately, the win did not represent a turning point in the Cardinals’ season, as they limped to a 71-91 record and last place in the National League Central Division, 21 games behind the champion Brewers.

For the season, Contreras appeared in 97 games at catcher, including 89 starts, and finished with eight errors for a .989 fielding percentage. He also threw out 14 of 56 would-be base stealers for a 25% caught-stealing rate.

According to Fangraphs.com’s defensive value stats, for the 2023 season Contreras provided 12.5 offensive runs above average but was 5.0 runs below average defensively. The same stat had rated Contreras as 3.5 runs above average defensively in 2021 and 0.4 runs below average defensively in 2022.

If the Cardinals were concerned, however, they didn’t demonstrate it with their roster construction heading into the 2024 season. Both Knizner and Barrera were released during the offseason, leaving Contreras as the clear starting catcher with rookie Ivan Herrera slated to make his first opening-day roster as the backup.

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[1] Jeff Jones, “What Cardinals’ catcher promotion means for Contreras,” Belleville News-Democrat, May 7, 2023.

[2] Derrick Goold, “What recasting Contreras reveals about pitching woes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 7, 2023.

[3] Derrick Goold, “What recasting Contreras reveals about pitching woes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 7, 2023.

[4] Derrick Goold, “What recasting Contreras reveals about pitching woes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 7, 2023.

[5] Derrick Goold, “What recasting Contreras reveals about pitching woes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 7, 2023.

[6] Katie Woo and Ken Rosenthal, “Exclusive: Cardinals’ John Mozeliak on why Willson Contreras’ move to OF is off,” The Athletic, May 7, 2023, https://theathletic.com/4496561/2023/05/07/cardinals-john-mozeliak-willson-contreras.

[7] Ben Frederickson, “The Redbirds should back up, not over, Contreras,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 9, 2023.

[8] Ben Frederickson, “Cardinals pin their hopes on stunning move,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 7, 2023.

[9] Ben Frederickson, “The Redbirds should back up, not over, Contreras,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 9, 2023.

[10] Katie Woo and Ken Rosenthal, “Exclusive: Cardinals’ John Mozeliak on why Willson Contreras’ move to OF is off,” The Athletic, https://theathletic.com/4496561/2023/05/07/cardinals-john-mozeliak-willson-contreras.

[11] Derrick Goold, “Contreras, amid turmoil: ‘I’m the catcher,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 9, 2023.

[12] Derrick Goold, “Contreras, amid turmoil: ‘I’m the catcher,’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 9, 2023.

[13] Lynn Worthy, “Nootbaar could see potential of Yoshida during WBC,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 13, 2023.

[14] Lynn Worthy, “Cards rally again,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 14, 2023.

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