Wainwright-Contreras battery begins its first chapter

February 13th, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- As if pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training wasn’t already enough to excite baseball-starved diehards, there was particular significance with one Cardinals battery working together on a mound just beyond Roger Dean Stadium on Monday.

There stood Cardinals cornerstone Adam Wainwright, throwing a variety of cutters, heaters and curveballs to catcher Willson Contreras. It was the beginning of the 41-year-old Wainwright’s final Spring Training and the beginning of Contreras' first Cards camp after bolting from the rival Cubs as a free agent. On this day, their purpose was centered more on building chemistry and getting themselves ready for the season rather than their contrasting nostalgias.

“I’m just enjoying it, and this whole season is going to be about enjoying where I’m at,” said Wainwright, who announced this offseason that 2023 will be his final season. “I won’t have any regrets or any ‘wish-I-had-dones.’ I’ll enjoy this season to the fullest.”

The one bit of nostalgia Wainwright allowed himself to feel was the fact that he was no longer pitching to Yadier Molina, the catcher with whom he was paired for 17 seasons to set American League/National League records for most starts (328) and victories (213) among batterymates. In many ways, Wainwright said pitching without Molina is like enduring a marital breakup because of how effortless and effective their chemistry was for years. Wainwright even went as far as texting Molina following his first session with Contreras -- not because his new catcher was at fault in any way, but because there was change to something that had been so comfortable for nearly two decades.

In between talk of newness, there was some good-natured trash talk about the upcoming World Baseball Classic between the Team USA pitcher and the Puerto Rican manager.

“He wanted me to play on Team Puerto Rico at first, and I asked him nicely to please not tip all my pitches to the hitters,” Wainwright said. “Yadi, for the last 12 years, we had introduced ourselves after our first bullpen sessions. I did send him a message after the first [bullpen] session I threw to Willson, saying, ‘I’ll miss doing this with you.’ But I’ve got a new catcher now.”

The Cardinals' retention of Wainwright and their addition of Contreras qualified as their biggest offseason moves, and they will bring back most of the squad that won 93 games and an NL Central crown before being swept in the playoffs. Landing a replacement for Molina was a top priority, and they nabbed Contreras with an $87 million deal and the catcher’s strong desire to play for the Cardinals. As for Wainwright, the Cardinals are hopeful he has enough bend left in his breaking ball to summon some of the magic Albert Pujols displayed in his final MLB season in 2022.

“He’s not a guy you want to bet against,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said of Wainwright. “If so, you’re probably going to lose."

Wainwright and Contreras, whose time working together started well before Monday’s official report date for pitchers and catchers, are admittedly closer to regular-season form than many of their contemporaries, with their internal clocks speeding up their tempos. Since Wainwright is slated to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, he figures he’s about two weeks ahead of where he normally is because of his upcoming departure in early March to compete for his country.

As for Contreras, not only did he decline a World Baseball Classic invitation to play for his native Venezuela, but he’s already logged several days at the Cardinals' complex to get more face time with the new pitchers he will be working with.

Wainwright, who also threw to rookie catcher Ivan Herrera and took direction from new pitching coach Dusty Blake on Monday, said it told him a great deal about Contreras’ seriousness as a competitor that he chose getting to know the Cardinals over playing for his home country. Wainwright already has developed a fondness while pitching to Contreras, who presents a big target -- much like Molina did for 17 seasons.

“We got on the same page right away. He was moving well, and he’s a great target,” Wainwright raved. “That’s the thing: Yadi was always such a great target. When you get up next to Willson, he’s a big, thick, strong guy. I love that about a catcher, and it makes the target easier to hit mentally.”