The St. Louis Cardinals are baseball's biggest, most baffling disappointment so far in 2023, and as of this weekend, the club's leadership appears to be in total panic mode. On Saturday, he appeared as the third catcher before announcing that marquee offseason addition Wilson Contreras would be pulled from his job as the starting catcher. After some confusion, management clarified that Contreras would not shift to the outfield, but would simply take a few weeks as the designated hitter to work toward returning to catcher.
If this sounds weird, 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 to Triple-A after a rough go in the outfield. He's not being benched as some sort of disciplinary measure, a tactic manager Ollie Marmol took last month with outfielder Tyler O'Neal. No, after catching more than 650 games in the majors, Contreras is now failing at the impossible challenge of being “Yadier Molina” while the Cardinals go an unremarkable 11-24.
John Mozeliak, the organization's longtime and by now wildly successful president of baseball operations, and second-year captain Marmol spent much of the weekend trying to explain the move to make it seem like something soft. The loud, public reprimand of the catcher who was anointed as Molina's replacement for a five-year, $87.5 million deal this winter. In an interview with The Athletic, Mozeliak declared that he still had confidence in Contreras. — whom, again, the team signed about six months ago and less than six weeks before baseball — but said his time as a St. Louis catcher “definitely got off on the wrong foot.”
Undoubtedly concerned by the Cardinals' terrible run prevention by now, Mozeliak and Marmol focused on Contreras' defensive preparation – his work with the beleaguered pitching staff – as the reason for the team's dismal start. His overall park-adjusted ERA was sixth worst in MLB on MondayAnd the starting pitching has been especially gruesome, surrendering more baserunners per inning than all of the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds and Oakland Athletics combined.
While they claim they are not pointing fingers, Cardinals leaders have placed much of the blame on the players for more than a month of bad baseball. But the more they try to talk about the team's problems — and possible solutions — the more they highlight how shoddy (or delusional) their own plans seem.
Do the Cardinals Have a Secret Catching Beyond Yadier Molina?
MLB teams make serious demands on catchers. They essentially work double duty: they have to work on their hitting and prepare for the weapons they are going to face and also work with the pitching staff to plan for the opposing hitter. Create and understand each obstacle's roadmap to success. Every catcher has to handle that juggling act.
Contreras, who before this year spent his entire career with the rival Chicago Cubs, has never been viewed as the league's best pitcher — 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. The Cardinals said they were confident of his work ethic and his desire to improve defensively from an underwhelming winter meeting.
However, later this week, Mozeliak mentioned a loss of confidence but did not provide a subject to action. Who Lost Faith: The Front Office? Manager? Pitchers?
Molina, who will likely make the Hall of Fame or at least receive strong consideration based on a towering defensive reputation, prompted a total buy-in from Cardinals pitchers. It's not surprising that Contreras didn't reach that pinnacle in a few months' work; In fact, it would be absurd to even consider it a possibility. Yet somehow, the Cardinals were stunned.
Mozeliak brought up the effect of pitch timers on compressing communication and claimed that spring training does not properly test the pitcher–catcher relationship. It doesn't do much to explain, say, why the Atlanta Braves didn't have similar issues with Sean Murphy or how the Milwaukee Brewers helped William Contreras — Wilson's brother — improve their defense behind the plate. .
But even taking them at face value, the complicating factors do not point to this drastic step. If the concern was around game-calling, the Cardinals would have tried to have experienced pitchers call their games via pitchcom. While some young pitchers cycled through in Adam Wainwright's absence, the rotation now featured five pitchers with more than five years of MLB service time. They are not naive deceivers; Two of them spent significant time with other clubs and non-Molina catchers.
As it stands, the Cardinals' recipe for getting Contreras up to speed is vaguely vague and discounts the value of actually working with the pitcher in the conditions that Mozeliak apparently finds so difficult to emulate. . In the immediate aftermath of the position-switch announcement, Marmol told reporters that “there are some things and ways that we operate that Wilson is still learning and learning.”
“It's a difficult thing coming from a different organization and learning all this,” he said. “We have an internal strategy in place to help with this, which will begin to move 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 typically break in new catcher. Reading Marmol's words, you might wonder, what's so complicated about the Cardinals' internal strategy? Is it classified information or kept in a secure vault like Coca-Cola's recipe? Can Contreras view essential content only at certain hours and in certain locations?
Assuming that the process doesn't involve accessing a vault or memorizing top secret codes, you might conclude that the Cardinals need their catcher to have the baseball equivalent of a nuclear physics degree, even That even a halfway capable rotation that anyone watching at home — degree or not — could have created before the season.
The Cardinals' pitching staff is not very good.
Ollie Marmol points fingers at everyone except John Mozeliak pitcher
A bad pitching staff was always on the table as a possibility for the 2023 Cardinals. Lacking a definitive top-of-the-rotation arm, the Cardinals opted out of the off-season market for pitchers and instead strengthened an already crowded lineup. He hoped for a return to health and prosperity for Jack Flaherty, perhaps a step up from the acquisition of Jordan Montgomery in the summer of 2022, for a more defiant time off from Adam Wainwright.
Montgomery has been at least as good, carrying a 125 parks-adjusted ERA+ that is slightly better than his career average. And nothing went right. Steven Matz is giving up a lot of homers (1.73 per nine innings), but this has been an issue in all but one of his recent seasons. Flaherty hasn't been able to find the zone consistently since returning from injury last season. Miles Mikolas dropping to a 5.79 ERA in his first year of a $55.75 million extension was unexpected, but the 34-year-old pitcher's decline really can't be that surprising.
The overall numbers show a team with just a ton of well-affected line drives. Statcast numbers show that only three teams allowed a higher average exit velocity and a higher expected batting average. The drastic decline in the quality of the Cardinals' defense—mostly due to poor play by the haphazard, ever-shuffling outfield—perhaps allowing more extra bases than the pitchers deserve, but there are no external variables that affect these pitchers. The flip of a switch will make it good. By the way, pushing Contreras to DH could exacerbate things by cutting into the time available to first batters like 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 the pitchers. However, in less than two months, it has become clear that something has gone terribly wrong in the usual St. Louis alchemy. Maybe Molina was more behind the Cardinals' success than we could see. Maybe the team has been woefully bad at assessing their needs this winter. Either way, thrusting Contreras — on a new, five-year contract — into the spotlight to absorb the anger and frustration weeks after the team made the similar, if more modest, sacrifices of O'Neal and Walker. The goat may not be a winning strategy in the clubhouse (unless you're the pitcher, in which case giving up a load of runs and blaming your catcher seems like a big deal).
The coaches and front office are there to put players in a position to succeed, and Contreras was set up to fall short. If Molina's position was so overrated that the organization forgot to teach game-planning, perhaps the off-season wish list should have included more than a new catcher.