The St. Louis Cardinals are baseball’s biggest, most perplexing disappointment so far in 2023, and as of this weekend, the club’s leadership appears to be in total panic mode. On Saturday, they called up what appeared to be a third catcher before announcing that marquee offseason addition Willson Contreras would be pulled from his job as the starting catcher. After some confusion, management clarified that Contreras will not shift to the outfield but instead will simply take a few weeks as a designated hitter to work toward returning to catcher.
If that sounds odd, well, it is. Contreras is not a rookie learning a new position — a la fellow early-season Cardinals scapegoat Jordan Walker, an elite hitting prospect who was sent down to Triple-A after a rough go in the outfield. He is not being benched as some sort of disciplinary measure, a tact manager Oli Marmol took with outfielder Tyler O’Neill last month. No, having caught more than 650 games in the majors, Contreras now seems to be failing mostly at the impossible challenge of “being Yadier Molina” while the Cardinals thrash about at an unfamiliar 11-24.
John Mozeliak, the organization's long-tenured and heretofore wildly successful president of baseball operations, and Marmol, the second-year skipper, spent most of the weekend attempting to explain the move, to make it seem like something softer than what it was: a loud, public rebuke of the catcher they anointed as Molina’s replacement with a five-year, $87.5 million deal this winter. In an interview with The Athletic, Mozeliak declared that he still has confidence in Contreras — whom, again, the team signed about six months ago and less than six weeks’ worth of baseball ago — but said his time as the St. Louis catcher has “certainly gotten off on the wrong foot.”
Undoubtedly alarmed by the Cardinals’ horrendous run prevention thus far, Mozeliak and Marmol focused on Contreras’ defensive preparation — his work with the beleaguered pitching staff — as a reason for the team’s abysmal start. Their overall park-adjusted ERA was sixth-worst in MLB heading into Monday, and the starting pitching has been particularly gruesome, surrendering more baserunners per inning than all rotations but those of the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds and Oakland Athletics.
While they claim they aren’t pointing fingers, the Cardinals’ leaders have directed a lot of blame toward players through just over a month of bad baseball. But the more they attempt to talk about the team’s problems — and potential solutions — the more they highlight just how poor (or delusional) their own planning seems to have been.
Do the Cardinals have a secret to catching beyond 'being Yadier Molina'?
MLB teams do make serious demands of catchers. They essentially operate on double duty: They have to work on their hitting and prepare for the arms they’re going to face and also work with the pitching staff to plan for the opposing hitters and understand each hurler’s roadmap to success. Every catcher has to handle that juggling act.
Contreras, who spent his entire career prior to this year with the rival Chicago Cubs, has never been viewed as the league’s best juggler — at least not in the pitching-first way Molina operated for the Cardinals. Instead, Contreras is a valuable player because he serviceably handles catching duties while hitting far more effectively than most other backstops. That profile was well-known based on reports about his time in Chicago, and the Cardinals said they were convinced of his work ethic and his desire to improve defensively from a glorious meeting in the winter.
This weekend, though, Mozeliak referred to confidence lost but didn’t provide a subject for the verb. Who lost the confidence: the front office? The manager? The pitchers?
Molina, who will likely make the Hall of Fame or at least receive strong consideration largely based on a towering defensive reputation, understandably inspired total buy-in from Cardinals pitchers. It’s not surprising that Contreras hadn’t reached that pinnacle in a couple of months of work; in fact, it would have been absurd to view that as a possibility. Yet somehow, the Cardinals seem stunned.
Mozeliak brought up the pitch timer’s effect on compressing communication and claimed that spring training didn’t offer a true test of pitcher-catcher relationships. That doesn’t do much to elucidate why, say, the Atlanta Braves haven’t had similar issues with Sean Murphy or how the Milwaukee Brewers have helped William Contreras — Willson’s brother — improve his defense behind the plate.
But even taking them at face value, the complicating factors don’t point to a move this drastic. If the concerns were around game-calling, the Cardinals might have tried having veteran pitchers call their own games via the PitchCom. While some younger pitchers cycled through in Adam Wainwright’s absence, the Cardinals rotation features five pitchers with more than five years of MLB service time. They are not guileless rookies; two of them spent significant time with other clubs and non-Molina catchers.
As it stands, the Cardinals’ prescription for getting Contreras up to speed is puzzlingly vague and seems to discount the value of him actually working with pitchers in those situations Mozeliak apparently found so difficult to simulate. In the immediate aftermath of the position-switch announcement, Marmol told reporters that “there are certain things and ways we operate that Willson is still taking to and learning.”
“It’s a difficult thing coming from a different organization and learning all of it,” he said. “We have an internal strategy to help with that, that will start moving in that direction over the next several weeks.”
It’s safe to say that taking weeks or months off from the daily demands of the catcher position is not how teams usually break in a new catcher. Reading into Marmol’s words, you might rightfully wonder what is so complicated about the Cardinals’ internal strategy? Is it kept in a secure vault like classified information or the recipe to Coca-Cola? Can Contreras view the required materials only at certain hours and in certain locations?
Presuming that the process doesn’t involve accessing vaults or memorizing secret codes, you might conclude that the Cardinals need their catcher to have the baseball equivalent of a nuclear physics degree to field even a halfway competent rotation, which simply drives home an observation anyone — degree or not — could've made before the season.
The Cardinals’ pitching staff just isn’t very good.
Willson Contreras on returning to Chicago as a Cardinal: "Even though I'm wearing a different uniform that doesn't mean that I don't love them. I'm really thankful for the fanbase and all the support I got." #STLCards pic.twitter.com/VlDHOzDDOa
— Bally Sports Midwest (@BallySportsMW) May 8, 2023
Oli Marmol, John Mozeliak point fingers at everyone except the pitchers
A bad pitching staff was always on the table as a possibility for the 2023 Cardinals. Lacking a surefire top-of-the-rotation arm, the Cardinals sat out the offseason market for pitchers and instead bolstered an already crowded lineup. They hoped for health and a return to prosperity for Jack Flaherty, for more defiance of time from Adam Wainwright, for perhaps a step up from summer 2022 acquisition Jordan Montgomery.
Montgomery at least has been good, carrying a 125 park-adjusted ERA+ that is a bit better than his career average. Nothing else has gone well. Steven Matz is giving up tons of homers (1.73 per nine innings), but that has been an issue in all but one of his recent seasons. Flaherty hasn't been able to consistently find the zone since his return from injury last season. Miles Mikolas’ tumble to a 5.79 ERA in the first year of a $55.75 million extension was unforeseen, but the decline of a 34-year-old pitcher can’t ever truly be surprising.
The overall numbers show a team giving up a ton of well-struck line drives. Statcast numbers show that only three teams have allowed a higher average exit velocity and higher expected batting average. A steep decline in the quality of the Cardinals’ defense — mostly because of poor play by a jumbled, ever-shuffling outfield — is probably allowing for more extra bases than the pitchers deserve, but there’s no external variable that would make these pitchers good with the flip of a switch. Pushing Contreras to DH, by the way, might even exacerbate things by cutting down on the available time for bat-first players such as Nolan Gorman, Alec Burleson and Juan Yepez.
Coming into this season, it appeared that the Cardinals were leaning into their strengths by adding Contreras to the offense and hoping to get just enough from their pitchers. In less than two months, however, it has become apparent that something in the usual St. Louis alchemy has gone very wrong. Maybe Molina was behind far more of the Cardinals’ success than we could see. Maybe the team was miserably bad at assessing its needs this winter. Either way, thrusting Contreras — on a fresh, five-year contract — into the spotlight to absorb the anger and frustration weeks after the team made similar, if more minor, scapegoats of O’Neill and Walker can’t be a winning strategy with the clubhouse (unless you’re a pitcher, in which case giving up a boatload of runs and getting to blame your catcher seems like a great deal).
Coaches and front offices exist to put players in position to succeed, and Contreras was seemingly set up to fall short. If Molina’s status was so all-consuming that the organization forgot how to teach game-planning, perhaps the offseason wish list should have included more than a new catcher.