CHICAGO — One of the dirty little secrets of the St. Louis Cardinals’ throw-their-catcher-under-the-bus saga is that the Cardinals needed Willson Contreras a lot more than Willson Contreras needed the Cardinals last fall when Contreras became a free agent.
That’s why they gave him the biggest contract they’d ever committed to a free agent ($87.5 million), why they agreed to a five-year deal that was two years longer than the one offered by their biggest competitor for his services (Houston Astros), and it seems pretty obvious that’s why they were so quick to save organizational face by scapegoating the centerpiece of their offseason.
Because here’s the other dirty little fact that’s not exactly a secret: The Cardinals pitchers — in particular the pitch-to-contact starters — aren’t the playoff-caliber group they would have you believe.
And for the Cardinals to perpetuate the Cardinals Way narrative that insinuates they know more about baseball and getting the most out of players than anyone else, their staff face plant so far this season would have to necessarily omit the pertinent history that in recent years they’ve leaned disproportionately on a generational savant behind the plate to elevate pretty good talent to playoff-qualifying levels.
And that raises the obvious question: How much is the move to relieve the guy who started three of the last four All-Star games of his catching duties, in favor of a minor-leaguer, about Contreras? And how much of it’s about his predecessor, Yadier Molina? We’re already getting a pretty good idea what it says about the team brass.
“I think that’s a really good question,” Contreras said during a conversation with Sportsnaut this week. “Because we have different personalities, and I let them know; I told them when I signed I’m not trying to replace Yadier because he’s a Hall of Famer. I’m going to be Willson Contreras.
“I know from what I hear that we have different personalities,” he said, “but it takes time. If they believe having me DH more is going to help the team, I’m here to do it.”
Is the Cardinals starting pitching the real culprit?
Contreras has taken the high road throughout a process that involved underperforming pitchers reportedly complaining (read: finger pointing) over pitch calling disagreements — a communication issue exacerbated by this year’s new pitch timers.
It’s impossible to know from the outside who’s right when it comes to any of those individual disagreements or the larger landscape of them.
But don’t let the Cardinals fool you into believing they’re not getting some untapped stuff and ability out of a bunch of top-tier starters. The Cardinals arguably have paid more attention to their lineup and Cardinals Way in the field in sustaining their competitive teams in recent years than they have paid dollars on a bona fide playoff-caliber front of a rotation.
Pro tip for the Cardinals: If you want better pitching, hire better pitchers.
The fact that Molina might have squeezed more quality out of a variety of pitchers over his career than any catcher of his generation was bound to catch up to the Cardinals.
About a quarter of the way into their first season without him, it’s come home to roost in last place in the National League Central.
And if you still want to blame Contreras consider that 33 games into the season, up to the point of the catching change, the Cardinals’ starters had a 5.39 ERA (4.71 for the overall pitching staff).
In the five games since — a full turn through the rotation — the starters ERA was 5.47 (staff: 4.20).
Also: The Chicago Cubs had a top-five ERA in the league with Contreras as their primary catcher from the middle of 2016 (when he debuted) through 2020, making the playoffs four times in those five years, including two NLCS appearances and a 2016 World Series victory that included five catching starts among the seven games for the 2016 rookie.
Maybe the difference has at least a little something to do with the guys throwing the pitches?
Jordan Montgomery, maybe the best performing pitcher on the staff through the move, had one of his two worst starts of the season Wednesday against the Cubs. And struggling Jack Flaherty followed his worst start of the season May 4, with Contreras, with one that didn’t look any better without Contreras — and then got testy with St. Louis media afterward.
How Willson Contreras is handling the controversy
Contreras, for his part, is handling the move better than anyone else involved.
And that included being asked about it in the context of his free agency, when both the Astros and Los Angeles Angels pursued him.
He said it was “close” with Dusty Baker’s Astros —even after Baker was part of nixing a trade at last summer’s deadline that would have sent Contreras from the Cubs to the Astros for Jose Urquidy. The Cubs, who had kept Contreras twisting in the wind all year without extension talks (or even an arbitration deal until June) were not able to pivot quickly enough after the Houston deal fell through and wound up keeping him the final two months of the year in an awkward ending to his Cubs career.
“If the deal happened I could have had my second ring,” said Contreras, who didn’t learn until news broke in November of the deal that had been agreed to by then-Astros GM James Click until he was overruled. “But at the same time, I believe in God, and I think God has everything in his hands. I leave everything in his hands.
“I think there’s a better way to look at it,” he added. “I didn’t get traded. At some point I wanted to stay with the Cubs. It didn’t happen. I think it was time to move on.”
The strained relationship with the Cubs front office after Jed Hoyer was promoted to replace departing team president Theo Epstein after the 2020 season, included literally zero communication between Contreras and Hoyer or his general manager, Carter Hawkins, from Contreras’ exit interview in 2021 to his exit interview in 2022, he said.
“A full year,” he said.
Maybe that experience is part of what gives Contreras the perspective to see the high road now.
When he learned of the almost-deal with the Astros, “I wasn’t even mad,” he said. “I wasn’t frustrated about it. They handle their business however they want to handle it. That’s one thing I can’t control.
“And the Houston Astros were still interested in me when free agency started,” he added.
Baker, who said he was against the trade in the summer because he was concerned about player in a walk year being asked to take a reduced role, sang Contreras’ praises during the winter meetings as the Astros and Cardinals reached the final stages of their pursuits of him.
“I really like Dusty,” Contreras said.
Ultimately, the Astros would not offer more than three years because they had top catching prospect Korey Lee in their long-term plans, Contreras said. And he did not want to take fewer years.
“I didn’t care about the money,” he said. “I just wanted five years.”
But what about now? What about all the noise created by his Cardinals bosses and a decision that has shifted form two or three times since manager Oliver Marmol first told media Saturday?
The idea they floated that he might not catch for them again, before they retracted that (one rival executive predicted that still will be the result)?
What about that big, huge red bus Marmol and team president John Mozeliak threw him under?
Maybe Houston’s looking a little better in retrospect?
“I’m still here,” Contreras said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I came here for a reason. I chose this team because I know, I believe that we have everything to be back in the playoffs and the World Series.
“There’s nothing against them,” he added. “They made a decision that I cannot control. That doesn’t mean I won’t catch anymore.
“It just …it takes time.”
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.