As a general rule of thumb, I would consider it a bad sign if I am referencing the following tweet in regards to the way that you are approaching something.
Mike Matheny, of course, is no longer the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, but the spirit of five hundred spiders in a kindergarten class lives on within the St. Louis Cardinals organization, as evidenced by the latest news, first reported by The Athletic‘s Katie Woo–that Willson Contreras, the lone acquisition by the Cardinals over last off-season, is being transitioned to a role primarily as a corner outfielder and designated hitter.
In the case of Willson Contreras, the problem is not that he does not have a bat capable of justifying this position adjustment–at the time this was reported, Contreras had a 119 wRC+ on the season (it was up to 122 by the time I typed this sentence). And when Contreras, never considered a premier catcher at any point in his career, signed a five-year contract with the Cardinals, it was widely assumed that this sort of transition was likely near the end of the contract. Barely a month into it, however, borders on catastrophic.
The bat that Willson Contreras will replace any time he plays in the corner outfield or at designated hitter will be, at most, marginally worse than Contreras. But the issue is that the Cardinals still need a catcher, and the players who will alternate at the position if Contreras isn’t there are Andrew Knizner, whose Friday home run allowed his season wRC+ to soar to 27 (his career mark sits at 65 with 588 plate appearances), and Tres Barrera, a 28 year-old whose MLB career to this point has consisted of 162 plate appearances over three seasons (over four years) in a backup role with the Washington Nationals. This is the real problem as it pertains to the Contreras fielding demotion–Contreras barely qualifies as an improvement over the already-loaded list of corner outfield candidates, but his offensive marks relative to Knizner or Barrera (or Iván Herrera, who apparently is just going to be stuck in Memphis for the time being) are day and night.
Of course, offense alone is not a great method of comparing two players, particularly at a position as defensively integral as catcher. The Cardinals organization and Cardinals fans broadly have spent nearly two decades citing the importance of intangibles behind the plate, claiming that what Yadier Molina brought to the position could not be quantified. But in terms of what Willson Contreras does that can be quantified, the results so far this season seem to be quite good, or at least as good as could have reasonably been expected. He has nabbed five of seventeen attempted base stealers this season, in a year in which stolen base conversion rates have improved across the sport. In terms of pitch framing, long considered his greatest weakness, Contreras has framed about at the rate he did over the previous two seasons with the Chicago Cubs–not great, but one, not nearly the disaster his late 2010s metrics appear to be, and two, considerably stronger than what Andrew Knizner has typically produced throughout his career.
The numbers on Contreras are very much a microscopic sample, but they are more or less in line with expectations–it would be reasonable to assume that he is the same catcher he has always been until it is demonstrated otherwise. If the Cardinals were insistent on having defensive juggernauts alone behind the plate, it doesn’t explain the continued employment of the defensively mediocre Andrew Knizner and it certainly doesn’t explain signing Willson Contreras and immediately backtracking on the move.
There are potentially reasonable explanations for the demotion of Contreras (and let’s be clear–this is a demotion), and I want to be very clear about that. I am addressing this situation strictly as an outsider. It could be that Willson Contreras no longer has the stamina to play catcher on a regular basis–he did, after all, only play 72 games there last season. But a fair follow-up question would be to ask if any evidence of physical deterioration came through in team physicals prior to the signing. Perhaps Contreras is lacking in the aforementioned intangibles, that he lacks a rapport with pitchers, but this wouldn’t explain why this never seemed to come up while he was in Chicago, and if the issue is strictly familiarity, it doesn’t explain how the presence of Tres Barrera, who has caught as many innings for the Cardinals as I have, would improve the situation.
At this point, Willson Contreras feels like a fall guy–a vocal minority of Cardinals fans seem ready to pin the team’s overall failures so far this season on the absence of Yadier Molina. Boosting the Hall of Fame case of a beloved franchise icon is a nice little consolation prize, but if the version of Willson Contreras that we can see with our novice eyes–basically the same version as we saw in years past–is suddenly unacceptable for the Cardinals organization, it suggests a half-hearted move in the first place. Perhaps they should have spent the Contreras money on a starting pitcher instead. Perhaps they should have made a move for Sean Murphy. Or perhaps it’s easier to pin the problems on the new guy than to examine the various smaller factors, or to simply cite the bad luck that has come this season, that have made the early part of the 2023 season so disappointing.