Cardinals Have a Major Willson Contreras Problem

St. Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants / Thearon W. Henderson/GettyImages

Willson Contreras is no longer the St. Louis Cardinals' catcher. After handing the 30-year-old backstop a massive contract this past offseason to replace the retiring Yadier Molina, the Cards appear to be having buyer's remorse a few weeks into the deal. A deeper look into the situation shows it's a problem that won't be going away any time soon.

Contreras was one of the most coveted bats at the 2022 MLB trade deadline. Catchers who can hit are a rare commodity in the big leagues. The Chicago Cubs opted to hold on to him after they didn't get the kind of offers they were expecting. There was a reason for that. Contreras is -- and always has been -- terrible behind the plate. Playoff teams were reluctant to entrust him with handling their pitching staffs. So the Cubs didn't trade him and instead let him walk as a free agent.

The St. Louis Cardinals snapped Contreras up as a free agent, handing him a five-year, $87.5 million deal. He was the top catcher on the market, a three-time All-Star and the Cards were stealing him from the rival Cubs. On paper, it looked like a coup. But a look at the numbers showed it was a doomed signing.

In 2022, Contreras ranked as baseball's worst regular defensive starting catcher according to Baseball Prospectus. In fact, his CDA (catchers defensive adjustment) ranked 100th out of the 120 players who actually saw time at catcher. His DRP (deserved runs prevented) ranked 76th. Fangraphs gave him a defensive rating of -0.4. On top of that, he's long had a reputation of being bad at handling a pitching staff. What held Contreras up was his offense, which was excellent for a catcher.

In 113 games in 2022, Contreras hit. 247 with an OPS of .815. He has 22 home runs and 55 RBI with 45 walks against 103 strikeouts while being hit by a pitch a ridiculous 24 times. It was a consistent pattern for him. In the three full seasons from 2019 to 2022, his OPS was .888, .778 and .815 respectively (note: we're excluding the 2020 shortened season because the numbers across baseball were skewed). And his fWAR was 2.6 in 2019, 2.3 in 2021 and 3.3 in 2022. That's all on the strength of his bat. His wRC+ was a career-best 132 in 2022.

While those numbers look nice on the surface, the problem for the Cardinals is that they're really good for a catcher. The team plans to move him to DH for now and his offense becomes far less valuable at that position. In 2022, Cardinals designated hitters combined for a wRC+ of 151, far beyond anything Contreras has ever produced.

So far this season, Contreras is slashing .265, .341, .393 for an OPS of .734, with two home runs and 14 RBI. That's not going to get it done at DH.

Here's the thing, the Cardinals are one of baseball's best organizations. While they have a reputation for being cautious with trades and free agent contracts, they rarely make bad moves. So why did they go all-in on a catcher everyone knew was terrible defensively? It was a move that made little sense in hindsight. Now they're stuck paying Contreras $72.5 million after this season though the 2027 campaign. At that point he'll be 35-years old and even worse than he is now.