Cards leave Winter Meetings with top target in tow

December 8th, 2022

SAN DIEGO -- There were plenty of massive deals pulled off at the Winter Meetings, with Aaron Judge and Trea Turner nabbing $300-plus million contracts and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion Justin Verlander jumping from the Astros to the Mets.

Willson Contreras might have had a slightly lesser profile than those other top players on the move, but to the Cardinals, Wednesday's deal with the standout catcher was just as enormously impactful as any player on the free-agent market.

A Cardinals team that made it no secret that it was coming to the Winter Meetings to nab an everyday catcher did just that when it landed the 30-year-old Contreras. The Cardinals had to ride an emotional roller coaster throughout the process, agreeing to the average annual value of the deal on Monday and then nearly seeing it fall apart when Contreras’ reps demanded a fifth year, per sources close to the situation.

On Wednesday, the Cardinals finally relented and rewarded the catcher a five-year contract. The deal is for $87.5 million,per’s Mark Feinsand -- the largest in team history for a player who had not previously played for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals' willingness to venture outside their financial comfort zone spoke to their strong desire to land the catcher. In the catching market for the first time in two decades, St. Louis not only needed a backstop, but it needed one proven enough to replace retired icon Yadier Molina. Coming off a 22-home run season with the rival Cubs, Contreras also can potentially replace some of the power lost following the retirement of legendary slugger Albert Pujols, who clubbed 24 home runs en route to 703 for his career.

Here is a look at the Cardinals’ hits from the Winter Meetings:

Biggest remaining needs
Within seconds of the Contreras news breaking, the fanbase started howling for the Redbirds to get in the shortstop sweepstakes. Clearly, no one is better at spending the money of others than sports fans.

Not that the Cardinals were ever seriously in the market for Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson or Xander Bogaerts (who is reportedly headed to the Padres), but they certainly aren’t now after landing Contreras. Acquiring the three-time All-Star allowed the Cardinals to check three boxes: They have an everyday catcher, they have a hitter capable of hitting fifth and providing lineup protection for cornerstones Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado and the Cardinals did damage to the rival Cubs by snagging their best hitter.

Bringing in Contreras leaves little financial flexibility to add the left-handed bat that the Cardinals need to better combat hard-throwing right-handed pitching. However, by getting Contreras in free agency instead of trading for Oakland’s Sean Murphy or Toronto’s Alejandro Kirk, it allowed the club to retain high-ceiling left-handers Nolan Gorman and Dylan Carlson (switch-hitter). The Cardinals refused to include Gorman or Carlson in early-August trade talks for Juan Soto, so trading them for Murphy or Kirk would have been baffling. The Cards are confident that both young players will make major gains in 2023.

Rule 5 Draft
It raised more than a few eyebrows on Wednesday when the Cardinals used their first selection in the Rule 5 Draft on Wilking Rodriguez, a 32-year-old pitcher who hasn’t thrown in an MLB game since 2014.

Said Cardinals GM Michael Girsch of Rodriguez: “Oh, he’s totally a non-traditional Rule 5 pick.”

Rodriguez caught the eye of Cardinals scouts this season when he compiled a 6-2 record with a 2.01 ERA and 17 saves in 46 appearances in the Mexican League. The Cardinals tried to sign the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder in the middle of the season, but Dos Laredos of the Mexican League refused to surrender control of the pitcher. When that season ended, he was signed by the Yankees. However, the Cardinals jumped at the chance to grab him.

Coincidentally, Rodriguez's MLB debut came against the Cardinals in 2014. In a scoreless inning against the Redbirds, Rodriguez retired Molina, the late Oscar Taveras and Jhonny Peralta.

GM’s bottom line
As is so often the case, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak got his man at the Winter Meetings. Contreras came at a higher price and on a longer contract than the Cardinals preferred, but the team can justify it because the former World Series champion will be used as a catcher, a DH and as a reliable No. 5 hitter in the order. They were wise to give Contreras the length of deal he wanted to lock up the replacement for Molina.