The student and the teacher? Former Cub Contreras ready for dual role with Cardinals

If the blatant desperation of the St. Louis Cardinals in sorting through their catching situation this winter felt out of the ordinary for the organization, it’s likely because Yadier Molina’s retirement put them in a position that’s almost out of living memory for every player on the roster.

In each year since 1985 — with the exception of 1999 — the Cardinals have had a catcher on the roster who won at least one Gold Glove in the course of his career. Without a stunning development in the two months before opening day, 2023 will become the second exception to that rule.

It’s why the Cardinals put all their cards on the table in their chase which landed on Willson Contreras, and it’s why Contreras, in January, has started commuting to the team’s complex in Jupiter, Florida, from his home outside Orlando on a bi-weekly basis. The offense will come. The catching has to follow.

“I always want to learn something new every day, and that’s something that I’m looking forward to,” Contreras said when asked about learning to work with his new pitching staff. “I’ve been watching a lot of videos the last month and a half, and I really love what I see.”

That work with the staff — the communication, the comfort, the inherent understanding — is both a key part of catching and perhaps underrated by outside observers of the Cardinals. When one person does a job for so long and makes it look so easy, perceiving its degree of difficulty is a challenge.

Or, put it another way: Yadi did it, but that doesn’t mean everyone can.

It’s a lesson Iván Herrera — currently third on the depth chart but the organization’s top catching prospect — learned the hard way last season. In his first taste of the majors, his offense was somewhat slow to come around, but it was his game planning that raised red flags. Herrera himself acknowledged a degree of surprise when being confronted with what he was expected to sort through day in, day out.

“My first couple games, I had headaches after the game because there’s so much information now,” Herrera said of his 2022 debut. “Trying to understand everything, every chance that we have to take advantage of. You have to always be working to get better at this game.”

Part of Herrera’s work this winter will include a spell out of spring training on the roster of Team Panama in the World Baseball Classic. Contreras, who would be a shoe-in to lead the Venezuelan squad, instead opted out. It was a difficult decision for a player with so much pride in his home country, but one he felt was appropriate given the magnitude of the task ahead of him.

“I know my responsibilities,” Contreras said. “My priority was to stay here with the team. It’s better to spend as much time as I can getting to know everyone on the team, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

The bridge between them Contreras and Herrera is Andrew Knizner, who did lead the team in starts as a catcher in 2022 thanks to Molina’s various injuries and leaves of absence. Knizner, however, will be arbitration eligible for the second time next winter, and Herrera, held in high regard, will likely be out of options ahead of the 2024 season.

By explicitly seeking a starter — and signing a starter to a five-year contract with a team option for a sixth — the Cardinals made clear their opinions of their depth options and their mid-term future behind the plate. Contreras, as he ages, will hand the baton to Herrera, and it’s on the two of them to come to a fuller understanding with and of the pitching staff.

Willson Contreras, who the Cardinals signed as a free agent to replace Yadier Molina as their everyday catcher, addressed St. Louis media for the first time Friday at Busch Stadium.
Willson Contreras, who the Cardinals signed as a free agent to replace Yadier Molina as their everyday catcher, addressed St. Louis media for the first time Friday at Busch Stadium.

Contreras getting to know pitchers

Contreras has done it for a championship contender and now has to apply those skills in a new spot. Herrera has to learn them, and take strides in being a trustworthy battery mate that can steer through difficult spots.

“It’s one thing facing them and one thing catching them — which is totally different,” Contreras explained. “That’s why I want to be in spring training. I want to know what their mentality is, what they like to do. Talking about my setup, where he wants me to set up, where he wants the target. For me, it’s about details.”

Those details don’t just cover what takes place between the white lines. Contreras said he likes to spend time with his pitchers talking about life, developing an understanding of them as people. That, in part, is a necessity borne of his history with the Cubs; the self-aware slugger admitted his competitive personality runs the risk of having rubbed his opponents-turned-teammates the wrong way.

‘I try to be as perfect as I can’

It’s also, though, part of asserting himself into a role which carries a long, proud history in St. Louis. Contreras accepted that responsibility when he accepted the contract and he’s taking steps to fulfill it.

“I try to be as perfect as I can because I know a lot of players are looking up to me, or anyone on the team that is in the big leagues,” he said. “Even though perfection doesn’t exist, I try to do my best job on the field and pass on the experience that I have so far.”

The Cardinals are eager to see him as both student and teacher.