Contreras’ edge already on display in the early days of Cardinals camp

“All he cares about is his family and winning baseball games,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said Wednesday of the team’s new catcher.
Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras takes batting practice at spring training camp on the back...
Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras takes batting practice at spring training camp on the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium, February 15, 2023.(Brenden Schaeffer)
Published: Feb. 15, 2023 at 9:17 PM CST
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JUPITER, Fla. (KMOV) — John Mozeliak described the conversation as a brief one.

He had asked Willson Contreras whether he intended to play in the World Baseball Classic. As one of MLB’s most notable Venezuelan-born stars, it conceivably would have been a meaningful opportunity for the new Cardinals catcher.

But Contreras’ answer was no. He intended to stay the course for the duration of Cardinals camp in Jupiter this spring, soaking up his new digs and getting acclimated to his teammates in preparation for the season.

It wasn’t something that the Cardinals had to coax him into. Although Mozeliak shared that he wouldn’t have tried to change Willson’s mind had he answered differently, the club’s lead baseball operations executive was encouraged that his $87.5 million dollar man was naturally inclined to prioritize his new team.

Without the Cardinals needing to nudge him, everyone naturally found themselves on the same page.

“I talked to Mo and I said that my priority was to stay here with my team,” Contreras said at Winter Warm-Up. “To spend as much time as I can with everyone on the team.”

Though Contreras has acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy decision, he knew it was the right one for him and the Cardinals.

“I know my responsibilities,” Contreras said last month. “The situation with my ankle was something that I finished last year. I don’t want to risk my body into something that won’t help the team at all.”

An emphasis on preserving his physical health certainly wasn’t the only factor in the Contreras’ decision to forgo representing his country in the WBC. For a franchise catcher joining a brand new team, there’s a learning curve in getting to know the tendencies, intricacies and preferences of an entirely unfamiliar crop of pitchers.

So rather than trying to drink from a firehouse during the first few weeks of camp before departing for the international competition—which runs from March 8-21, smack-dab in the middle of the Cardinals’ Grapefruit League schedule—Contreras recognized the importance of using the full runway of spring training to learn about the pitching staff that he will shepherd through the upcoming season.

That his team-first decision wasn’t one the Cardinals needed to coax him into—or even so much as to request from him—was noteworthy for St. Louis manager Oliver Marmol.

“It spoke to his commitment to what he finds important,” Marmol said. “Which is to start to build some of those relationships and establish himself as one of the leaders in the clubhouse.”

Beyond the scope of his leadership behind the plate and in the clubhouse, the Cardinals sought Contreras in free agency because of the things he can do in the batter’s box. St. Louis ranked 28th in MLB in OPS from the catcher spot last season as Yadier Molina gritted through an injury-riddled campaign.

The allure of a boost in offensive production at the position was tantalizing for the Cardinals as they simultaneously looked to replace the thump that Albert Pujols had provided as the team’s designated hitter last season.

Though it wasn’t necessarily anticipated that Pujols would be such an integral part of the offense when he originally signed back with St. Louis in March, No. 5 finished the year behind only NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt among Cardinals hitters in OPS at .895. His retirement left a void in the middle of the batting order.

With one free-agent signing, the Cardinals could fill their vacancy at catcher and mitigate the loss of Pujols’ power. The timing of Contreras’ presence on the market in this particular winter could not have been better for St. Louis.

“It checked a lot of boxes, right? In one guy,” Marmol said. “We needed to get a catcher that we were super confident in being able to catch every day. We needed to add some thump into the lineup from just a bat perspective. And when you look at adding competitive nature, and overall mindset to the club, to add to what we already have going—this is an extremely disciplined group. And when you talk to him, he checks that box at well.

“All he cares about is his family and winning baseball games. So he fits into that bucket with the rest of our guys.”

Contreras was the full package—with an edge to him that was all too familiar to St. Louis.

“I’ve communicated that I did not like playing against him for several reasons—and he made it clear that he was intentional about making sure we didn’t like him,” Marmol said. “It’s always good to know that someone can make you feel that way across the way and being intentional with it. Because now you have him on our side.”

Contreras has apparently wasted no time channeling that competitive edge from his new vantage point of the Cards-Cubs rivalry.

While grabbing a bite to eat at a local restaurant Wednesday afternoon, this writer met Debbie, a red-clad baseball fan who excitedly displayed her treasure trove of photos from a day on the back fields at Cardinals camp. An image of Contreras peering through chain-link dugout fencing came with a tale that has since sent Cubs fans into a tailspin on social media.

Debbie regaled that another fan had taken a picture of Contreras, wearing his Cardinal red, to send to a Cubs fan friend of theirs. That fan joked to Contreras that the Cubs supporter would probably cry upon receiving the image.

As the story goes, Contreras replied, ‘they’re going to be crying for a long time.’

I play for you not to like me.

That was Contreras’ best line from his introductory press conference in December. It appears the new Cardinal has already weaponized that mindset against his former team.

“You add that to the other guys we have in our clubhouse?” Marmol added. “I wouldn’t want to face us.”