How Marmol helped Cards land Contreras

December 16th, 2022

This story was excerpted from John Denton's Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

A self-described competition junkie who regularly seeks out challenges and wakes up and goes to bed thinking about winning the next pass-or-fail moment, Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol views the offseason jockeying for free agents and position battles to come through the prism of competition.

For Marmol, landing Willson Contreras -- the most accomplished and proven catcher on the free agent market -- was another form of winning that he craved and badly wanted for his ballclub. As MLB’s youngest manager at 36 years old, Marmol could have easily assumed a role on the periphery during this free agent chase. Instead, he was heavily involved in the sales pitch to Contreras, and he wasn’t afraid to challenge his motivations for wanting to win.

To land Contreras -- which the Cardinals ultimately did with a five-year deal for $87.5 million -- the franchise and its manager had to sell the former World Series champion on their culture and their desire to try and win it all in the near future. The Cards did that in Orlando, Fla., -- Contreras’ offseason home and the place where Marmol was raised and went to high school -- during a get-to-know-you session on Nov. 30. Contreras saw St. Louis’ strong culture when he looked on longingly at how the franchise celebrated and adored Albert Pujols following the slugger’s 695th home run at Busch Stadium on Sept. 4. (Later that same day, Yadier Molina unknowingly gave the Cardinals’ push to land their next catcher an assist by sending over a signed jersey that Contreras would model in the secrecy of his Chicago home.)

During that skull session in Orlando between Contreras and the Cards, Marmol saw it as his mission to seal the deal with the must-have catcher by selling the team’s winning culture and its strong desire to compete every day for a championship.

“We wanted to leave [Orlando] knowing that we got the deal done,” Marmol said. “We knew he would be a guy who would fit in well with what we have going here. Hearing him say, ‘This is where I want to be,’ was big for us, because you want people to want to play [in St. Louis]. In that meeting, there was no talk of dollars or years; it was about fit, culture -- what drives him to win and his expectations of us. He made it clear that St. Louis is where he wants to be.”

Marmol cultivates competition in every facet of his job of running the Cardinals. Young by managerial standards, Marmol is wise and mature beyond his years and fully accepting of the responsibility on his shoulders. His Cards won 93 games and an NL Central crown last season, and he knows it wasn’t nearly enough in a place that expects -- er, demands -- championships.

Marmol is also aware that competition in a clubhouse tends to bring out the best in athletes who thrive when challenged. He fully understands that the organization’s top prospect -- 6-foot-5, 220-pound outfielder Jordan Walker -- is likely to push for a roster/starting spot in Spring Training. If the 20-year-old Walker is up to the challenge of battling for a spot, competing daily and proving himself worthy, he’ll get the job, Marmol said. He is also hopeful that outfield incumbents -- such as Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Lars Nootbaar -- will also embrace the competition to come and use it to elevate their games.

“This is the big leagues and that’s what this is all about,” Marmol said of competition for jobs. “We’re going to take the best players. [Walker] is going to come in and compete, and I sure hope that he’s waking up every morning thinking about winning a job and taking somebody’s job. And I hope the other guys are waking up every day making sure that their job isn’t taken. That’s the nature of this business -- every day you have an opportunity to win. That’s what makes this all fun.”