CHICAGO — What’s wrong with the St. Louis Cardinals?
How much time you got?
“This first month was a perfect storm of badness for this team,” said longtime ace Adam Wainwright as the defending National League Central champs opened their first series of the year against the rival Chicago Cubs 13 games under .500 with the worst record in the NL.
Of course, Wainwright didn’t pitch this year until Saturday because of a groin injury. So maybe that’s the reason for the franchise’s worst 35-game start in 50 years.
“That’s the obvious answer,” Wainwright joked.
The only serious public consensus among those who work for the organization is that it’s not Willson Contreras’ fault, this shocking face plant that had the Cardinals 14 games under .500 through Saturday for the first time since they ended the 1997 season 73-89.
And yet they stripped their three-time All-Star catcher — the $87.5 million jewel of their offseason — of his catching duties until further notice in a move Saturday that smacked of scapegoating, if not desperation.
The ugly optics were made worse by the timing just ahead of Contreras’ return to Wrigley Field for the first time after seven years as a Cubs starting catcher that included five starts behind the plate during the most celebrated World Series win in baseball history.
“We’re not losing ballgames because Willson’s behind the plate,” manager Oliver Marmol reiterated Monday, suggesting again that the move is temporary while the staff continues working with the accomplished veteran on how they want him to handle their pitchers.
”There’s so many different layers and elements to what we’re talking about,” Marmol said. “We are making sure he understands the full process of how we think through a game plan.”
He refused to elaborate.
“That’s the part I won’t disclose and that won’t make sense to the rest of the world. It just won’t,” Marmol said. “I’ll wear it until then.”
The Cardinals, in fact, gave up six runs in each of the first two games Contreras was moved to DH.
Cardinals support for Willson Contreras
Wainwright, who said he asked the coaching staff to let Willson Contreras catch his next start, echoed Marmol’s sentiments and was part of a small group Marmol gathered to emphasize those thoughts to Contreras Sunday.
“We sat him down and just poured into him that we love this guy. We’re glad he’s here. We want him to be our guy,” Wainwright said of the meeting that also included starting pitcher Jack Flaherty and the manager. “No one’s giving up hope on Willy.
“Honestly, I don’t know if anyone’s ever told him that,” Wainwright added. “But he’s appreciated. We love him. We’re glad he’s here. We’re glad he’s part of our team, and I think he’s going to be a huge force for us going forward.”
Said Marmol of the meeting: “The most important thing is he knows where he stands in the clubhouse, where he stands in my eyes and the eyes of the front office. … When you think of the [$87.5 million] investment over the next five years I feel really good about what we have in place. It may not make sense to a lot of people at the moment. I promise you it will.”
He’s certainly at least half right.
Contreras, who said he appreciated the support, seemed in good spirits upon his return to his original home ballpark.
And in even better spirits after trolling the crowd throughout a game in which he scored the first Cardinals run and drove in the two others in a 3-1 victory — marking the first time all year they’ve won the opener of a series and the first time since April 11-12.
“It’s been an emotional last few days for me, but I’m happy to be here,” Contreras said before the game, wondering aloud what kind of reception he might get from what turned out to be nearly 31,000 fans.
Asked before the game if, given the emotion he plays with, he expected to become a Cubs villain in the rivalry, he said, “Probably a good chance.”
It took barely an inning.
After doffing his helmet to the crowd for his first at-bat, getting mostly cheers with a few boos, Contreras led off the second with a sharp single up the middle, and — responding to a few lingering boos — gestured with both hands above his head for the fans to keep booing.
An RBI double off the wall later in the game brought even more boos and a quick repeat of the gesture as soon as he leaped from his slide into second.
“I enjoyed every second,” said Contreras who added the gestures were spontaneous. “I found myself doing it; my teammates responded … and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to keep doing it.’ It was fun.”
Said winning pitcher Miles Mikolas: “You’re not a Cardinal until you get booed and yelled at, at Wrigley. So now he’s one of us.”
When will Willson Contreras return to catching duties?
For how long? It’s only the first week of May in the first year of Willson Contreras’ five-year deal, but the drastic-looking change — which involves Contreras sticking by Marmol’s side during games — has St. Louis airwaves already filled with trade speculation.
Maybe Contreras will return to catching duties quickly, and the rotation — which entered Monday with a 5.33 ERA — will pitch well enough that the coaching staff won’t need to find another scapegoat. And the Cardinals will dig themselves out of their historically deep hole.
Some Fangraphs defensive metrics call him one of the top six defensive catchers in baseball. And he’s hitting a lot better than last year’s MVP finalist, Nolan Arenado.
“I can’t wait to get behind the plate,” Contreras said. “That’s what my passion is about. That’s what the Cardinals got, a passionate guy that likes to work, likes to get better and likes to be behind the plate. And they know that, so right now, just focused on getting better, back on the field and especially behind the plate.”
Marmol refused to offer a timeline. “I’m not looking at it that way,” he said. “He’ll know, and we’ll know.”
Until then, he’ll represent the sense of urgency, if not the scent of desperation, emanating from this last-place Cardinals team and the still-raw management team that hasn’t faced this kind of team failure for anything close to this length of time in St. Louis.
It’s not just media and fans wondering about this spectacle of a move this early in the season.
“Matt Carpenter texted me: ‘What in the world [is happening],” Wainwright said of the former Cardinals staff ace and teammate. “I told him just relax. It’s going to be like a couple of days. Just relax.”
Whether it’s a couple days or a couple weeks, it’s a bad look for one of the most historically successful franchises in baseball — a team that has been in the playoffs the last four years, nine of the last 12 and that hasn’t had a losing season since 2007.
And how much of it’s specifically about Willson Contreras, Arenado, individual pitchers or even just the sizable retirement loss of franchise icon Yadier Molina — the man Contreras was tasked with replacing — the bad look won’t change unless the results do. No matter how many deck chairs get moves to how many new positions.
“Yadi’s presence here has been documented but also hard to replace,” Wainwright said. “But it certainly doesn’t speak to going into [Sunday] 14 games under .500. Don’t get me wrong, Yadi’s the greatest catcher to ever live, in my opinion. But does he make us go from 10 over to 14 under? That’s on us.”
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.