Free-agent catcher Willson Contreras is signing a five-year deal with the Cardinals, a league source confirmed to The Athletic on Wednesday. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal first reported news of the Cardinals closing in on an agreement with Contreras and ESPN’s Jeff Passan first reported terms of the $87.5 million deal, which is pending a physical. Here’s what you need to know:
- Contreras signed as an undrafted free agent with the Cubs in July 2009 and was promoted to the major-league team in 2016.
- He was the only remaining active position player from Chicago’s 2016 World Series roster at the end of last season.
- Contreras turned down the Cubs’ qualifying offer on Nov. 15 and headed into free agency. Chicago will get a compensatory pick after Competitive Balance Round B.
- Contreras’ contract is the largest free-agent deal ever by the Cardinals for a player who didn’t previously play for the club.
Contreras has spent all seven years of his career with the Chicago Cubs and was widely considered the catching market’s top free agent. An All-Star for the Cubs in 2022, Contreras was coming off an age-30 season in which he hit .243/.349/.466 with 22 home runs.
“I’m in a spot that I dreamed to be in, this is a spot that I wanted to be (in) since I was a kid,” Contreras previously said. “I did everything I could to reach free agency. So it makes me proud. At the same time, it makes me a little nostalgic to leave my team. But everything happens for a reason.”
Contreras may not be a perfect catcher; he may not thrive at the soft factors of the game and be the perfect game planner. But there are few catchers who can boast having caught a veteran-laden staff during a World Series run as a rookie. And even fewer who can provide the type of offense Contreras just did this past season when he delivered a 132 wRC+ and slugged over 20 home runs for the fourth time in his career. Contreras works hard, has impressive energy and fans seem to gravitate toward him.
“The fans appreciate how hard I work,” he said. “I’m a guy that gives 100 percent, and they see the effort.”
How Contreras fits with the Cardinals
For the Cardinals, the signing of Contreras addresses two glaring needs. They have filled the hole left by Yadier Molina, who retired at the end of the 2022 season, with one of the most productive offensive catchers in baseball. The Cardinals have also boosted their heart of the order — an area the front office identified as a need — with Contreras likely to slot behind 2022 National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
In a media session Tuesday afternoon, manager Oli Marmol expanded on previous meetings he participated in with Contreras and Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, describing Contreras as a “very good competitor.”
“We talked about loving winning and this is a guy that loves to win,” Marmol said. “He wakes up thinking about it and goes to sleep thinking about it. We’ve seen that quite a bit from across the way.”
On Monday, Mozeliak expressed optimism the Cardinals would leave San Diego with a long-term starting catcher in place. As the winter meetings prepare to wrap up, he will be doing just that, as he’s secured a top free agent from the Cardinals’ biggest rival. — Woo
Who are the Cardinals getting in Contreras?
Someone who will pour his energy into proving the Cubs wrong. That side of Contreras’ edgy personality should help create an instant bond with Cardinals fans, adding some juice to a rivalry that dates back to 1892. A less accomplished catcher could be intimidated by the idea of replacing Molina in St. Louis. But Contreras’ steadfast confidence in his abilities pushed him through parts of eight seasons in the minors before making his major-league debut, helped the Cubs end a 108-year championship drought, and ultimately convinced him to bet on himself as a free agent.
It will obviously take time to learn a different system and develop relationships with new pitchers. The challenge of doing that during the middle of the season contributed to what Cubs officials described as a “tepid” market for Contreras’ services at this year’s trade deadline. Contreras doesn’t have the greatest reputation as a defensive catcher, but he compensates for that with a strong arm, the ability to control the running game and block pitches in the dirt, a .800-plus career OPS and a willingness to mentor players from Latin America. — Mooney
How will the Cubs replace Contreras?
All along, the Cubs prepared for this eventuality, operating as if they needed to find a new catcher to pair with Yan Gomes. To name a few, the Cubs have met with Christian Vázquez, done background work on Omar Narváez and discussed Tucker Barnhart. Seeing Contreras in a Cardinals uniform will be jarring at first, but this separation from a homegrown All-Star player didn’t exactly catch the team off-guard.
President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer believed he had a trade-deadline deal for Contreras with the Astros — until Houston owner Jim Crane overruled since-fired general manager James Click and vetoed the move. That last-minute surprise crushed Hoyer’s leverage and forced the Cubs to settle for a draft pick instead of pitcher José Urquidy. It didn’t change the organization’s thinking on how the position should be valued moving forward. The Cubs want a defense-first catcher. — Mooney
(Photo: David Banks / USA Today)