ST. LOUIS -- In a series of moves that even Willson Contreras admitted “caught me by surprise,” the Cardinals front office and managerial staff have decided to shift the three-time All-Star catcher and their major offseason free-agent addition into more of a DH role to try and spark their struggling pitching staff.
The Cardinals lured Contreras away from the rival Cubs in December with a five-year, $87.5 million deal. They were adamant at the time that he was being signed to be the catcher who would serve as the primary replacement for retired legend Yadier Molina. Now, 33 games into his first season in St. Louis, Contreras will be used almost exclusively as the designated hitter in the coming weeks while Andrew Knizner will be the primary starting catcher. Tres Barrera, who has 51 games of MLB experience, was selected from Triple-A Memphis on Saturday by a Cardinals franchise that came into the day on a seven-game losing streak.
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said the switch from Contreras to Knizner as the team’s primary catcher was made following several meetings with president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, bench coach Joe McEwing, pitching coach Dusty Blake and Contreras.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about it, and it allows for some familiarity behind the plate with our [pitching] guys, which I think will help, especially with the state that we’re in, because at the end of the day, we need to start winning ballgames,” Marmol said. “Some familiarity with our pitchers and our bullpen [with Knizner catching] allows for that.”
Marmol said the decision to move Contreras out of the catching role was made “by watching the game.” He added, “There are certain things in ways we operate that Willson is still taking to and learning -- and it’s a difficult thing coming from a different organization and learning all of it.” Marmol, who chose not to be specific about the areas that need improvement, added, “So, we have an internal strategy to help with all that and we’ll start moving in that direction over the next several weeks.”
Contreras, 30, came into Saturday slashing .280/.361/.421 with two home runs, nine doubles and 14 RBIs. In a starting DH role in Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Tigers, Contreras singled in the fourth inning, but he grounded out with the bases loaded in the seventh and he struck out with the potential game-tying run at second with no outs in the ninth inning.
At issue, the pitching staff's numbers entering Saturday -- a 4.71 ERA (21st in MLB) and a starting staff ERA of 5.39 (24th in MLB) that have lagged terribly and have been the cause of many of the team’s struggles. Also, the staff has given up the most home runs (20) and has the highest batting average allowed (.217) with two strikes in the count. Four of five of Detroit’s runs on Friday night came on hits on two-strike pitches.
Contreras said he recently reached out to Molina, the nine-time Gold Glover who won two World Series as the Cardinals catcher for 19 seasons. Contreras wore cleats to honor Molina on Opening Day and has idolized the catcher throughout his eight-year MLB career. He said Molina gave him encouragement throughout their 10-minute video chat.
“I talked to Yadi a few days about it because I was feeling guilty about it because I take the losses personally and I came here to win,” Contreras said. “He said he was watching the game and that we’re not executing pitches. That’s the same thing that I’ve been seeing. I’m not blaming anybody and I’m not pointing fingers at my pitchers because I’m on their side. But we need to be better at executing pitches with two strikes.
Marmol said that Contreras has taken tremendous strides in his pitch-framing skills at the bottom of the strike zone -- an area that was of issue when he was in Chicago. In 27 games as a catcher this season -- he’s been a DH five times -- he’s been charged with three errors. While Contreras has thrown out five would-be basestealers, he has allowed 12 stolen bases.
“If you remember when we first got [Contreras], there were questions being asked around his bottom-of-the-zone framing and his inability to do that in his career and our plan [for] improving that -- and if you look where he’s at, the plan has worked,” Marmol insisted. “He’s put in the work and addressed it. We pinpointed exactly what we thought could help -- and if you look at the [pitch-framing] numbers, they're better. So, [the position shift] is not around [pitch receiving]. It has to do with some of the other nuances of that position -- and all I can say is that dude is a pro.”
Marmol was bluntly asked how Contreras can improve as a catcher if he’s catching less and being used almost exclusively as a DH. The manager admitted that he had no good answer. What he did have an answer for is where the blame should not lie about the team’s poorest start to a season in 50 years.
“One thing I want to make super clear: We’re not losing ball games because Willson Contreras is behind the plate,” Marmol said. “I want to be super clear on that.”