Contreras enters first Cards camp with hunger to win title

February 16th, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- As Willson Contreras started reeling off some of the reasons why he chose to leave the Cubs for the rival Cardinals, he noticed fellow All-Star Nolan Arenado leaving the clubhouse and walking to his vehicle with a baseball bat in his hands.

“Look at him taking a bat home,” Contreras said incredulously. “He’s probably going to get in front of a mirror and start swinging as soon as he gets home.”

Arenado’s relentless obsession with hitting, Paul Goldschmidt’s tireless work ethic even after winning the NL MVP and the discernable hunger in Adam Wainwright’s voice while he and Contreras have talked about finding an edge have already burned their way into the psyche of the Cardinals' new catcher. The white-hot desire of those players to be great and to do whatever it takes to win a World Series has reaffirmed Contreras that he made the right decision in picking St. Louis as his new home. He too shares a hunger to win it all, especially after tasting that sort of rarified air in 2016 while with the Cubs. In St. Louis, there’s a demand to win big, and that’s what Contreras was desperate to find again.

“It’s been a good experience watching Arenado hit and take ground balls and watch Goldy hit and take ground balls. The whole team, we’re built to win,” Contreras gushed. “Once you get a World Series ring, you want to get back every year, even when you know how hard it is. That’s the mindset and why I came here.

“I talked to my agent and family about it, and we were looking for teams that have the materials to get to the World Series. When we talked about the Cardinals, we thought they had everything it takes to get back to the World Series -- not just this year, but in other years. That’s what I’m looking for, and this whole organization wants to get back to the World Series.”

That must be music to the ears of Cardinals fans who will use the season ahead to get used to seeing a catcher other than Yadier Molina behind the plate. Molina’s familiar No. 4 -- which he wore while winning nine Gold Gloves and two World Series titles over 19 seasons -- has been replaced by Contreras’ No. 40. The Cards' new backstop has spoken reverentially about Molina, calling him “my idol” and telling stories of how he studied YouTube videos of Molina’s defense after switching to catcher full time.

Contreras said he and Molina have spoken once about the Cardinals culture and the team makeup, but he’s tried to resist bothering the new retiree. He added confidently about Molina: “He’s always going to be there for me.”

President of baseball operations John Mozeliak and manager Oliver Marmol have been impressed for months with how much the catcher wanted to be a Cardinal, something he stressed at the start of free agency that culminated in Contreras signing a five-year, $87.5 million deal. Wainwright pointed out recently that unlike in 2015, when outfielder Jason Heyward picked the Cubs over the Cards, St. Louis is once again an attractive place to play. And when Contreras declined Venezuela’s invitation to play in the World Baseball Classic so that he could remain with the Cardinals, it further showed the seriousness to win from the catcher.

“He’s way more personable than you would think after playing against him across the way,” said Marmol. “This guy cares not only about him but also about learning his teammates. Right after we signed him, he wanted video and intel on each guy to learn them better so there was no learning curve once he got here. He’s intentional about the conversations he’s having and who he’s connecting with.”

Tugging on a Cardinals jersey -- as Contreras did on Wednesday for the first time since privately trying on Molina's gift last fall -- simply felt right. Having second thoughts about such a drastic move would be only human, but Contreras said candidly that he is fully convinced he did the right thing.

“I’m really happy with the decision I made, and I think it was the right move,” said Contreras, who hit 22 home runs in 2022 and figures to be a dramatic offensive upgrade for the Cardinals. “Being here feels like home even though I’ve been here [just] two months. The respect everybody on the team has showed me, they wanted me to be here, and I wanted to be here. I think I made a great decision.”