CHICAGO – It’s been a whirlwind for Willson Contreras lately, perhaps more than anyone else, as the St. Louis Cardinals seek answers to an early-season prolonged stretch of losing. Monday, in more ways than one, proved to be a stretch in the right direction.
Contreras sparked the Cardinals to a series opening win against his former team, the rival Chicago Cubs, on Monday behind two hits and two RBIs, which included a late tiebreaking double.
“It was a fun game,” Contreras told media members after the game. “It was fun to play against my ex-teammates and my ex-team.”
The three-time All Star returned to a mix of cheers and boos from the Wrigley Field faithful. The Cubs paid tribute to Contreras with a pregame highlight video, and the grinning catcher popped out of the dugout and waved his hat to acknowledge a crowd of 30,000-plus.
Like old times, Contreras delivered a big night with his bat at the Friendly Confines. Unlike old times, it was in another uniform and did not involve him catching behind the plate, an unfortunate consequence stemming from an eight-game losing streak that St. Louis just snapped Sunday.
Over the weekend, Contreras learned he would see fewer opportunities at catcher in the upcoming weeks. Cardinals manager Oli Marmol and President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak both informed media members of this plan, though squabbled over whether he would be used at designated hitter or in the outfield, in the short term.
The situation garnered national attention among baseball fans, and it appeared to frustrate Contreras at least a little bit. He removed his Cardinals profile photo on his Instagram account over the weekend.
However, speaking to media Monday, Contreras sees this plan as motivation and wants to get back to catching games soon.
“I think from now on we’re following a really good plan to help (my) catching behind the plate,” said Contreras in a pregame chat with media. “That doesn’t mean I’m not a St. Louis Cardinal catcher, as many people think that I’m not going to catch anymore. It’s not that way.”
Contreras joined the Cardinals on a five-year, $87.5 million deal he signed in the offseason, one he signed with intentions to follow the footsteps of longtime Cardinals backstop Yadier Molina and serve as the primary catcher for the next several years.
Right now, Andrew Knizner, the Cardinals backup catcher for the last several years, will handle the bulk of catching opportunities during games. Contreras will continue to work with pitchers in bullpen and non-game settings in hopes to get more acquainted with the staff.
“We’re finding a really good plan to have me catching sometime soon and we’re following it,” said Contreras.
Filling the shoes of Yadier Molina was never going to be an easy task, but Contreras had some success in his first month as catcher. Advanced analytics show he was right around league average in blocking as a catcher this season and above average in framing for pitches in the upper half of the hitter’s zone.
That said, though not immediately stated by Marmol or Mozeliak, there might have been some concerns about the pitching staff, which just broke out of the bottom 10 of MLB teams in ERA (4.49), remains in the bottom 5 in WHIP (1.45) and Top 10 in walks (nearly 4 per game).
Contreras, also noted that he spoke with Cardinals starters Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty about the situation, and Wainwright told media, “We love this guy” and wanted to make sure he knew it.
The Cardinals have won two games in a row for the first time since mid-April. It was their first series-opening win in 12 tries this season. St. Louis continues a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday.