Contreras going all-in to learn Cards' staff

Venezuelan catcher explains why he prioritized his new team over the Classic

March 11th, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- When Team Venezuela opens its World Baseball Classic schedule Saturday night in Miami, will be watching.

The catcher opted to skip the Classic after signing with the Cardinals this offseason, intent on using every moment in camp to learn his new pitching staff following a seven-year stint with the division-rival Cubs.

“I'm focused on learning my pitching staff, learning my team, doing everything that I can to make this team a little better,” Contreras said. “I will be watching some games; they're doing really good, so hopefully they will go far this year.”

The decision to withdraw his name from WBC consideration was Contreras’ and his alone. The Cardinals organization has 17 players competing in the event, but Contreras told St. Louis right after he signed that he would be staying in Jupiter for the entire spring.

“I think he made that super clear,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “Being here to know his teammates and organization is the most important thing and it's benefited everybody a ton. I appreciated him making that decision, because it does allow for him to download a lot more of the stuff we do here. He’s been unbelievable.”

Contreras spoke with Venezuela’s manager, Omar López, this winter to inform López of his plans, saying the two of them were “on the same page” and that López “respected my decision.” He knows others weren’t as understanding about his choice, but Contreras hopes to play in the Classic when it comes around again in 2026.

“Probably some players and some people didn't like it, but everybody has their priorities,” Contreras said. “I'm not saying Venezuela is not a priority because it is my country, but this is a whole new team and I need to spend more time with them here than playing in the WBC.”

The process of learning the St. Louis pitching staff began long before Contreras arrived in Jupiter. The catcher began digging into video of the Cardinals’ arms shortly after signing his five-year, $87.5 million deal in early December.

Since the start of camp, Contreras has spent significant time getting to know his pitchers both on and off the field. He’s caught them at nearly every opportunity, sat down with them to learn what makes them tick and broken down the way they like to attack certain hitters.

“You get a little better insight once you start playing with them; you see how they act, how they go through their business, how they talk,” Contreras said. “You have to find the right way to say stuff. The first time that I caught everybody, I was trying to learn and to listen to them. Now that I have an idea of what makes him good and what gets them locked in, and I can say some things that can get them back in line.”

Contreras has even offered his insight into what opposing hitters are thinking when they face them. After all, as a member of the NL Central for his entire career, Contreras has plenty of experience against the likes of Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright, taking at least 19 at-bats against each starter.

“We’ll have conversations about, ‘What would you look for? What did you see when I was good versus other games where I may have struggled?’” Flaherty said. “You have those talks and figure things out. It’s interesting seeing it from a guy who faced us a lot over the years. Just knowing different approaches from their team, you just find different things to learn.”

“I think that's helpful,” Marmol said. “It does give you a little bit of an advantage being on the side of prepping for that as a hitter, then prepping with the pitcher. There's some insights that you can impart there.”

The Cardinals’ season opener against the Blue Jays is rapidly approaching, giving Contreras and his new staff only a few more weeks to prepare before the games count. The 30-year-old will take some time to watch his native Venezuela in the WBC this week, but it won’t get in his way of making sure he’s ready to go come March 30.

“The coaches and the players are making it easier,” Contrera said. “They've been nice to me, they’ve been asking a lot of questions and getting to know a new pitching staff. They have a really good idea of what they want to do and that’s something that I was looking forward to. It's been a great experience overall.”