This season didn’t go like most seasons. The Cardinals were terrible. I stopped writing here very much, with nothing after the blog anniversary. However, some things must go on and that includes the Exit Interview series! Now in its 12th year, it’s our look back at each player that made an appearance in a game for the St. Louis Cardinals. We’re approaching it a little different this season, a little more literary and a little less statistical, but hopefully you enjoy it just the same. As always, I am grateful that cardinalsgifs has agreed to use his talent for the header image!
Player: Willson Contreras
Stats: 125 G, 495 PA, 55 R, 27 2B, 20 HR, 67 RBI, 6 SB, 3 CS, .264/.358/.467, 3.4 bWAR
Statcast: 12.2% barrel, 34.1% sweet spot, 117.5 max exit velocity, .358 wOBA, .375 xwOBA, 22.4% K, 10.3% BB
The Cardinals went into last offseason with a need for a catcher and what seemed to be a solid plan to acquire one. They needed someone to step in for Yadier Molina and to fill the hole the legend left both offensively and defensively. They pursued that plan after the World Series, working feverishly to get their man.
But they couldn’t pull the trigger on getting Sean Murphy, not wanting to give up players like Lars Nootbaar for him. So, especially after a captivating meeting where Oli Marmol and John Mozeliak were both very impressed, they pivoted to the top free agent at the position, Willson Contreras. Contreas said all the right things at his press conference, about how he had started picturing being a Cardinal when the Cubs were in town during Albert Pujols‘s run for 700, how Yadi had sent over a jersey that he tried all, all wonderful anecdotes. However, there will still some curiosity about how this life-long Cub would endear himself to the Cardinal faithful.
In the end, the front office did it for him.
L’affaire Contreras was a weird one at the time and it hasn’t gotten any clearer in the months that followed. To say after a month that this catcher, who you just signed to a five-year deal knowing his defensive issues, is all of the sudden not your starting catcher anymore, that he’s going to DH or maybe play other positions, seems like a panicked response to a terrible April. If you have concerns that he’s not up to the standard that you are used to–a standard that is impossibly high, by the way, given the last resident has a claim on best defensive catcher ever–then work with him out of the public eye, let Andrew Knizner start a few more games, but for heaven’s sake don’t publicize it. (And don’t bring up a third catcher who is never actually going to play either.) There were ways to deal with the situation with grace and finesse. The front office did not choose any of those ways.
Contreras, however, was a class act throughout all of it, even though he had to be hurting. The support that his teammates–well, most of them–had for him seemed to mean a lot. His emotion at helping Adam Wainwright win his 200th game was amplified by the care and concern Waino had had for him all year long. His ability to handle himself well in the storm brought Cardinal fans to his side faster than anything else could have.
After all that blew over in a couple of weeks, Contreras wound up just being the catcher you thought he was getting. Was he part of the reason the pitching staff was terrible? I imagine he had some role, but less than losing Molina, the loss of the shift, and the general ineffectiveness of the pitchers. He was also one of the hottest hitters in the second half of the season, hitting .309 with a .959 OPS before being shut down the last week of the season.
What’s in store for 2024: The club still talked about his defense after the season and the talk of Molina returning as a coach probably is tied pretty directly to that. However, whatever he brings defensively, it’s probably not going to overshadow the contributions he brings with the bat. Contreras’s future will impact those coming up behind, most notably Ivan Herrera, but he’ll be behind the plate for the next season or two at least and, if this year is any indication, bringing a lot of thump with him.