Quick hook on Contreras suggests Cardinals miscalculated the learning curve of replacing a franchise icon

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Woodford pauses on the mound with catcher Willson...
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jake Woodford pauses on the mound with catcher Willson Contreras, left, after giving up a three-run home run to Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. during the second inning of a baseball game Monday, April 3, 2023, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Jeff Roberson | AP)
Published: May. 10, 2023 at 5:43 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - In his return to Wrigley Field for the first time as an opposing player Monday night, Willson Contreras was the conquering hero for the Cardinals.

In the Cardinals’ 3-1 win over the Cubs, Contreras roped multiple hits including a key RBI double off the top of an ivy-covered center field wall in the sixth inning. While gesturing to the Wrigley crowd to escalate their boos at his expense, Contreras showcased the bat that St. Louis believed could boost its lineup when the Cardinals signed him to a five-year $87.5 million contract this past winter.

The productive display from Contreras on Monday, though, came solely at the plate and not behind it. Success from the batter’s box is the only type of success his present lineup designation will allow.

That’s because the Cardinals have, for the time being, sidelined Contreras from his duties as the team’s primary catcher. Amid a poor start to the season for the Cardinal pitching staff, the eight-year MLB veteran catcher has been relegated to designated hitter duties⁠.

The exact reasoning behind the decision isn’t something the Cardinals have been willing to divulge, but the learning curve for Contreras adjusting to the way St. Louis wants to see things done behind the plate, in one way or another, has evidently proven more substantial than the team had anticipated.

This move comes amid the reality that Cardinals pitchers have allowed more home runs and a higher OPS in two-strike counts than any team in baseball. The team’s pitching woes have played a huge role in the start that has the Cardinals in last place in the NL Central.

Contreras may have called for many of the two-strike pitches that have been hammered all over the yard, but were the pitchers not the ones throwing them? The blame shift has been jarring.

With all of the factors in play⁠—a new pitching coach, lack of continuity with pitchers who were absent from spring training for the World Baseball Classic, an injury to the team’s veteran-most starter, and the impacts of new rules like the shift ban for St. Louis’ pitch-to-contact rotation⁠—it’s confounding to see the team pinning these struggles on their $87.5 million catcher.

While Oli Marmol can say that’s not what this move suggests, the Cardinals wouldn’t do something so drastic five weeks into the season for giggles and grins.

Although the Cardinals have won a few games since shelving Contreras in favor of Andrew Knizner as the primary catcher, to hold Contreras liable for the failings of the pitching staff to this point is scapegoating in the purest form. Sure, Jack Flaherty was animated after surrendering 10 earned runs last Thursday in St. Louis with Contreras behind the plate. But in his latest start Tuesday, he allowed seven hits and five walks with Knizner as his catcher⁠—with another two-strike home run included in his game log.

Pitchers may not trust Contreras to call a game⁠—after all, how does the situation devolve to this point without some among the pitching staff speaking up and calling attention to the perception of a problem? It’s conceivable that a lack of trust in the catcher may have shattered the collective confidence of these pitchers. It’s still excuse-making to the highest degree.

Are they not still the ones releasing the baseball? And why should their word on the matter be trusted over the catcher who could rightfully cite missed execution of pitches as the downfall of the staff at the moment?

After all, it’s how Contreras’ revered predecessor diagnosed the problem with the club’s pitching.

It has become painfully transparent that the Cardinals were making this up as they went along over the weekend. For example, the manager shared publicly the team’s intention to introduce outfield playing time to Contreras’ bags of tricks in the coming days and weeks. A day later, the president of baseball operations told The Athletic that time in the outfield was no longer in Contreras’ future.

It wasn’t that the previous reporting was wrong. The Cardinals had simply changed their minds⁠—or had two key spokespersons for the organization existing on two entirely different pages regarding the path forward.

Sunday, before John Mozeliak’s comments appeared in The Athletic, Marmol challenged a perfectly reasonable question by a reporter as to what the Cardinals would need to see from Contreras in order to begin the aforementioned introduction to the outfield.

The Cardinals manager responded that the situation was more about “what does Contreras need to do to get behind the plate, not playing the outfield?”

Marmol’s redirection was relevant, as we learned upon Mozeliak’s edict hours later to national writer Ken Rosenthal that the Cardinals were scrapping the Contreras-to-the-outfield plan. But at the time, it was a reasonable quandary based on the way the Cardinals had spoken publicly about the situation.

I have defended Oli Marmol as a quality communicator⁠—and a lot of this should fall on the front office, given everything trickles down from there⁠—but the rapidly-changing information on Contreras over the weekend signals room for improvement for the Cardinals in that area. It was striking to hear Contreras say that it caught him by surprise when the Cardinals promoted a third catcher, Tres Barrera.

The Cardinals admit there has been intent behind the vague nature of their descriptions. In a recent story on the topic, Jesse Rogers of ESPN quoted Marmol: “There’s so many different layers and elements to what we’re talking about. We are making sure he understands the full process of how we think through a game plan.”

Then, Rogers wrote that Marmol was asked to be more specific in his explanation.

“That’s the part I unfortunately won’t disclose and that’s the part that won’t make sense to the rest of the world,” Marmol told reporters, per Rogers. “It just won’t. I’ll wear it until then. That’s the part that will stay in-house, and at the end of the day, it won’t make sense to anyone else, but we do feel confident in the end product.”

So the Cardinals are admitting that there are elements of this saga that they simply won’t publicly disclose at this time. But they believe that taking this substantial action now with Contreras will be better for the organization in the long run.

If this Contreras situation shows anything, it’s that the Cardinals had misplaced priorities this past winter when addressing how to replace franchise icon Yadier Molina.

The Cardinals evidently didn’t realize that spending a few hours with Contreras in Florida in December would not qualify as an adequate vetting process to ensure the new guy understood the depth of the expectations for the franchise catcher in St. Louis.

As it turns out, ‘Do it like Yadi did it’ probably wasn’t sufficient instruction from an organization that may not have even understood everything that entailed.

For all the acknowledgment over the years regarding how vital Molina was to the organization, it seems the Cardinals are only just now realizing the full scope of his impact behind the plate.