Rosenthal Willson Contreras determined to silence the critics with Cardinals

Rosenthal: Willson Contreras determined to silence the critics with Cardinals – The Athletic

JUPITER, Fl. – Funny how two teams, historic rivals in the same division, can see the same player so differently. The Cubs bid farewell to Willson Contreras in part because he failed to meet their defensive preparation and game calling standards. The Cardinals, on the other hand, gave Contreras $87.5 million to replace one of the best defensive catchers of all time, Yadier Molina.

Which team was right? What was wrong? The answers will be determined over the next five seasons, the campaigns of Contreras aged 31-35. Contreras will almost certainly offend the Cardinals more than Molina did in the latter stages of his career. The debate over Contreras’ alleged defensive weaknesses, meanwhile, is more complex than it might seem.

The Cubs refrained from publicly criticizing Contreras, who won a World Series and fielded three All-Star teams in his uniform. Their pitching coach Tommy Hottovy praised him to The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma on Friday, saying: “There have been no problems on our side” for the vast majority of the player’s tenure.

Still, Contreras’ approach occasionally frustrated Cubs manager David Ross, a former catcher, and the team’s coaching staff, according to sources with knowledge of the situation who were granted anonymity to speak frankly. opposites prepared. He worked hard. But he didn’t always prepare and work the way the coaches wanted.

“Hearing these things is really hard,” said Contreras. “I was there for six years. I prepared the same every day. … I think I did everything right. That’s what I said (to the Cubs) the day I walked out of there, that I would walk out with my head held high, knowing that in the six years I’ve been there, I’ve done my best to make everyone better close.

Contreras vowed to do the same for the Cardinals during an impassioned three-and-a-half-hour session in Orlando with baseball operations president John Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol just before the winter meetings. The discussion convinced the Cardinals to abandon their efforts to trade for a catcher and intensify their pursuit of Contreras as a free agent. And even though spring training has only just begun, the Cardinals rave about Contrera’s commitment to his pitchers without questioning it.

Marmol said that shortly after Contrera was signed, the catcher requested video and internal scouting reports on the Cardinals’ starters and several of their aides. Veteran Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright said it was “really cool” that Contreras decided to stay on the team and learn the pitching team, rather than fulfilling a burning desire to represent Venezuela at the World Baseball Classic to play. Mozeliak dismissed any concerns about Contreras’ game-calling, saying, “In the modern game you can manipulate some of it, teach some of it, coach some of it.”

Contreras won five of the Cubs’ seven games in the 2016 World Series as a rookie; The other two starts went to Ross, who was Jon Lester’s personal catcher. Lester, Kyle Hendricks and other veteran Cubs starters later gained confidence in the younger catcher. The problem last season, Contreras said, was that some of the Cubs’ pitchers were inexperienced and he sometimes had to change game plans.

“People don’t really know what happened there,” Contreras said. “I had to adjust to the (Krugs). I didn’t want them to do what I thought was right. I had to let her be herself. I didn’t want to be a dictator, telling them what to do. I would often prefer them to figure things out for themselves.”

The criticism that he didn’t name games correctly?

“I don’t think it’s true,” said Contreras. “You can ask the pitching coach. Obviously, I’ve often strayed from the plan because I’ve seen what’s going on in the game. If the pitcher doesn’t have what it takes to execute Plan A, I had to move on to Plan B. I know we have technology and it all helps. But often the feelings in the game are also very important.”

Hottovy noted that since Contreras is a workaholic in the game’s most physically demanding position, he needs to prepare diligently to prepare his body for the game every day. Since 2017, Contreras’ first full season, only two active catchers, JT Realmuto and Martín Maldonado, have started more games behind the plate (Molina was also in front of Contreras before his retirement). During those six seasons, Realmuto was the only catcher with a higher OPS+.

Defensively, Contreras isn’t an adept framer, but that ability will become obsolete once Major League Baseball adopts an automated ball-striking system, perhaps as early as 2024. Contreras has a strong arm, an important trait in a sport introducing new rules this season, is evolving to increase base stealing. He is more athletic than most catchers and blocks pitches well.

No player is perfect. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Contreras spent more than seven seasons in the Minors before making his Major League debut. Hottovy, who joined the Cubs in 2014 as their run prevention coordinator and became their pitching coach in December 2018, said Contreras has developed and grown as a catcher.

“Willson is definitely doing a great job communicating with the guys what they’re trying to achieve every day,” Hottovy said. “Will he be able to catch all the pins and help them work on things between starts? No, because he plays every day.

“As with any catcher, there are times when you get tangled up in a lot of things. You worry about hitting, you worry about defense, all those things you’re working on. Yes, it’s easy to get lost. Maybe game calling will take a back seat. But it’s not that he doesn’t challenge a man’s strengths or does something he shouldn’t. He has a really good feeling.”

Willson Contreras slips into home base as Yadier Molina attempts to make the day in 2016. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

The night before Mozeliak and Marmol met with Contreras in Orlando, the two cardinal officials discussed their expectations and what they wanted to hear from the free-agent catcher.

Mozeliak had two concerns.

“NO. 1, does he understand the responsibility and scope of having to replace an icon?” said Mozeliak, referring to Molina. “NO. 2 was more of a personal thing for me. When I saw him play I hated him. My only other example would have been Will Clark. I remember when he was with the Giants I wasn’t a huge fan. But when he became a cardinal I loved him.”

Mozeliak needn’t have worried. Contreras said he will accept the challenge of replacing Molina. He expressed a desire to play for the Cardinals, knowing only the Yankees have won more World Series titles. And he explained that he prefers it when opponents don’t like him.

“I want you to feel that way about me. i want you to hate me It’s part of my game,” Marmol recalled Contrera’s words.

Mozeliak left the meeting thinking, “Okay, we’ve got to find a way to make this work.” Contreras had already mentally separated from the Cubs. He said he tried to “force” his way around staying in Chicago, eventually meeting up with Ross and telling him, “This is where I want to be.” But a teammate had warned him: The Cubs were ready to move on.

“I thought, ‘Okay, I think my job is done here,'” Contreras said. “Whatever they do, it’s going to take a while for me to heal and get over it. But at the same time, I knew that I had done a really good job over the past six years. I’ve proven myself in the big leagues. I wasn’t sent down once, which is really important for a catcher.

“I said to my agent, ‘I know a team will be interested in me.’ A lot of people thought I wasn’t getting what I was getting. But I trust God. And God knows how much sacrifice I’ve put into my work. When negotiations started and I heard the Cardinals were the first team that was interested in me, I thought, ‘This is a team I’d like to play for.'”

Contreras knew everything about the Cardinals since he played them 19 times a year in the NL Central, knew their culture, their leadership, their history. He was also aware of the responsibility of succeeding Molina, who he sees as a future Hall of Famer. “Now that I’m here, I’m putting that out of my mind,” he said. “But I will try to be better for the pitching staff. I know that I have to adapt to this.”

Marmol said he might have quickly upset Contreras if he had said in Orlando, “I want to put up (offensive) numbers. That’s what I’m about.” Instead, Contreras spoke of wanting to improve every aspect of his game. If he’s true to his word, he should fit comfortably into the Cardinals’ clubhouse, where the team’s two best players, first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado, are also the team’s hardest workers.

Contreras began texting with the Cardinals’ pitchers shortly after signing with the club. He began developing relationships with them when he visited the team’s spring training complex in January. In the early days of camp, he reported early to the complex and did defensive drills with bullpen catcher Jamie Pogue and minor league infield coordinator José Oquendo to hone his craft.

“That was every day of the week he was doing defensive work before he even picked up a bat,” Marmol said. “That speaks to his determination.”

A cynic might suggest that Contreras is like any other person in a new environment, eager to please and trying to make friends. He respects the Cardinals’ experienced starters. He will almost certainly do his best to get the best out of them. But over time, will he return to being the catcher the Cubs didn’t trust to remain locked in on the defensive side?

That’s one point of view. Another reason is that the change could do Contreras good. He won a World Series with the Cubs. It was his only organization for 14 years. If he got opinionated on occasion, well, he was the last prominent remaining member of the 2016 World Series Champion and was used to doing things his way.

Contreras dismisses the notion that his defensive attention occasionally fluctuates when he’s fighting offensively.

“It was quite difficult for the first two or three years in the big leagues. But after that I was able to break up really well. I heard a reporter from Chicago last year say I couldn’t bid a game. I thought, ‘Huh?’ Then I caught two shutouts. It’s not about game calling. It’s about adjusting pitch by pitch.”

At last year’s trade deadline, the Cubs struck a deal to send Contreras to the Astros for right-hander Jose Urquidy. But Astros owner Jim Crane scuttled general manager James Click’s plan, and the team brought in Christian Vázquez for two minor leagues instead. Click, who was fired by Crane after the Astros won the World Series, saw Contreras much like Mozeliak later, who valued his offense and wasn’t as concerned about his defensive reputation.

When the Cubs failed to move Contreras, some in the industry felt it was an ominous sign of his free hand (the Astros’ ill-fated attempt to land it was not reported until after they won the World Series). The Cardinals gave Contreras an average salary of $17.5 million, the fourth-highest for a catcher behind Realmuto ($23.1 million), Salvador Perez ($20.5 million), and Yasmani Grandal ($18.25 million US dollars).

Contreras no longer had to bother with whispers that he wasn’t diligent in his defensive prep and didn’t work well with pitchers.

“I know that’s a lie,” said Contreras. “I watch videos. I watch a lot of videos. When I go home I write things down that I don’t show the team because I don’t have to show what I’m doing. I just have to show what I’m doing on the pitch.

“People don’t know that. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes that people don’t know about.”

(Top Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)