The St. Louis Cardinals knew that replacing Yadier Molina would not be an easy task after the legendary No. 4 called it a career after the 2022 season, but the team was smitten with Willson Contreras after an offseason interview and handed him a five-year contract worth $87.5 million which was the largest contract the Cardinals have ever given to a player not on their team. The front office was confident that he was their answer at catcher for the next few years. However, the transition has been far rockier than anyone in the Cardinals' front office seemed to expect.
The roller coaster that has been Contreras’ tenure with the Cardinals began in April, when his preparation habits came into question. The issues continued in early May, when management decided to remove him from the everyday catching role, only to reinstate him about a week later. Later in the season, it was revealed to New York Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay that Contreras had been calling for pitches that weren't in pitchers' arsenals.
Despite Contreras' defensive performance being in line with his career norms, the Cardinals appeared taken aback by his failure to be a worthy defensive successor to Molina. With Contreras now only catching a few games a week and Ivan Herrera receiving a larger piece of the pie, along with the occasional Andrew Knizner start, the Cardinals are in a difficult and unexpected position in Contreras' first season with the team.
The St. Louis Cardinals have a decision to make regarding Willson Contreras after 2023.
The front office's choice to go after a catcher so aggressively seemed to signify a lack of faith in Herrera's development. With Herrera doing well in the minor leagues and translating some of that success to the majors so far, it looks as though he might be able to take the reins as the Cardinals' starting catcher next season in lieu of Contreras.
John Mozeliak said he wanted to wait until the offseason to make a decision on the Cardinals' future catching situation. With the Cardinals likely to retool for 2024, Contreras deserves as much time behind the plate as possible to see if he can be acceptable there. If Contreras proves down the stretch that he can't be a satisfactory catcher, the Cardinals will need to either trade him and eat his contract or keep him as an expensive designated hitter.
Contreras would lose a lot of value if he were to solely be a designated hitter. It would also block other players from getting off their feet but keeping their sticks in the lineup. Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Jordan Walker and Nolan Gorman all could benefit from those breaks, as could players who are too compromised to play in the field for a few days because of injury but who can still hit.
The Cardinals can't keep a player with a contract the size of Contreras' on the bench, so a trade might be the best option. The front office would rather eat a shoe than admit failure, but for the good of the organization's future, Mozeliak and Michael Girsch may need to go a different direction much sooner than they anticipated.
The allure of Contreras obviously led the Cardinals astray and made them think he was a type of catcher that he had never shown himself to be. Although the Cardinals are likely to sell pieces at the trade deadline and not contend for a division title, it's still worth watching to see how Contreras performs behind the plate to see if there's anything that can be saved. If not, the Cardinals may have made a mistake that could cripple the organization for years.