BOSTON -- Willson Contreras, the prized free-agent to whom St. Louis paid $87.5 million in the offseason to be its catcher for the next five years, will be back behind the plate when the Cardinals face the rival Brewers at Busch Stadium on Monday night.
Manager Oliver Marmol revealed on Saturday morning that the Cards decided Contreras was ready to resume normal catching activities after spending much of the past week working to get more in sync with the style of game plan the team wants to use when attacking hitters. Marmol said that Monday’s starting pitcher, Jack Flaherty, also pushed for Contreras to be behind the plate to open the series against the Brewers.
Contreras last started at catcher on May 4 in the Cardinals’ 11-7 loss to the Angels, in which Flaherty surrendered a career-high 10 earned runs and tied a career high with nine hits allowed. Contreras caught the ninth inning of a 5-4 loss to the Tigers on May 5 when the team pinch-hit for starting catcher Andrew Knizner and forfeited the designated hitter. St. Louis then announced on May 6 that Contreras would be used exclusively in a DH role while working with coaches and the pitching staff to better assimilate to the Cardinals’ style of game plans for catchers.
“We felt really good about the progress that we've made, and it lines up really well for him to catch on Monday with Jack on the mound,” Marmol said of the decision for Contreras to return to a catching role. “This is what [Flaherty and Contreras] wanted. They both wanted it, and Willson wanted to be behind the plate on Monday. And we felt really good about lining it up that way with all the progress that we've made.”
Contreras, who turned 31 years old on Saturday, will likely continue to serve in a DH role through the weekend. The veteran catcher, who spent the first seven years of his MLB career with the Cubs before signing with the Cardinals in December, homered in Friday’s 8-6 win and was in the starting lineup at DH on Saturday. He entered Saturday’s game against the Red Sox hitting .263 with three home runs, 10 doubles and 18 RBIs.
While working strictly as a DH, Contreras has spent time during games chatting with Marmol, pitching coach Dusty Blake and many of the pitchers on the staff. That time of bonding will ultimately prove beneficial, Flaherty predicted.
“Since the start of spring, that dude has done nothing but work,” Flaherty said of Contreras. “That’s all he’s done. Him and I talked all spring, and I was actually one of the guys who worked with him while the other guys were at the [World Baseball Classic]. I was able to work with him and talk to him, and I had a lot of starts with him -- some good and some bad. And if they were bad, it was on me not executing pitches. It’s been fun watching him work, talking to him on the bench and hanging out with him while he’s been DHing. It’s been really good.”
With Contreras serving as the team’s primary catcher early in the season, the Cardinals’ staff mostly struggled, posting a 5.27 ERA with Contreras behind the plate. Comparatively, St. Louis pitchers put up a 4.21 ERA with Knizner at catcher. No starter lasted more than 5 1/3 innings since the catching change was made, including veteran Adam Wainwright who received his second no-decision on Friday after allowing four runs and two home runs over five innings pitched.
Two days after Contreras was removed from the starting catching role, Marmol arranged two meetings with the catcher, several members of the coaching staff and Wainwright and Flaherty. Wainwright said earlier this week that he used the session to remind Contreras that he was respected and loved by his new teammates. Flaherty said on Saturday that the meeting was critical in terms of helping Contreras know that no one was blaming him for the team’s early-season struggles, especially regarding the troubles the pitching staff has had with longevity and effectiveness.
“What was said a few weeks ago was out of frustration and was more about myself in terms of executing pitches and making pitches, and that’s something I haven’t done,” Flaherty said. “Whoever is behind the plate isn’t going to change that. I mean, that’s on me to execute.
“With Willson, I love having him back there, and he gives you that confidence with that competitiveness he has,” Flaherty added. “I’m looking forward to it. It will be fun, and he and I attacked Milwaukee before, and we’ll come with a game plan to do it again."